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STRING OF PEARLS
[the original 1846/47 penny dreadful featuring SWEENEY TODD
THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, ed.]
THE THIEVES' HOME
In a very few minutes Sweeney Todd found that this court had no thoroughfare, and therefore there was no outlet or escape; but he immediately concluded that something more was to be found than was at first sight to be seen, and, casting a furtive glance beside him in the direction in which he had come, rested his hand upon a door which stood close by.
The door gave way, and Sweeney Todd hearing, as he imagined, a noise in the street, dashed in and closed the door, and then he, heedless of all consequences, walked to the end of a long, dirty passage, and, pushing open a door, descended a short flight of steps, to the bottom of which he had scarcely got, when the door which faced him at the bottom of the steps opened by some hand, and he suddenly found himself in the presence of a number of men seated round a large table.
In an instant all eyes were turned towards Sweeney Todd, who was quite unprepared for such a scene, and for a minute he knew not what to say; but, as indecision was not Sweeney Todd's characteristic, he at once advanced to the table and sat down.
There was some surprise evinced by the persons who were seated in that room, of whom there were many more than a score, and much talking was going on among them, which did not appear to cease on his entrance.
Those who were near him looked hard at him, but nothing was said for some minutes, and Sweeney Todd looked about to understand, if he could, how he was placed, though it could not be much of a matter of doubt as to the character of the individuals present.
Their looks were often an index to their vocations, for all grades of the worst of characters were there, and some of them were by no means complimentary to human nature, for there were some of the most desperate characters that were to be found in London.
They were dressed in various fashions, some after the manner of the city - some more gay, and some half military, while not a few wore the garb of country-men; but there was in all that an air of scampish, offhand behaviour, not unmixed with brutality.
'Friend,' said one, who sat near him, 'how came you here; are you known here?'
'I came here, because I found the door open, and I was told by someone to come here, as I was pursued.'
'Ay, someone running after me, you know.'
'I know what being pursued is,' replied the man, 'and yet I know nothing of you.'
'That is not at all astonishing,' said Sweeney, 'seeing that I never saw you before, nor you me; but that makes no difference. I'm in difficulties, and I suppose a man may do his best to escape the consequences.
'Yes, he may, yet there is no reason why he should come here; this is the place for free friends, who know and aid one another.'
'And such I am willing to be; but at the same time I must have a beginning. I cannot be initiated without someone introducing me. I have sought protection, and I have found it; if there be any objection to my remaining here any longer, I will leave.'
'No, no,' said a tall man on the other side of the table, 'I have heard what you said, and we do not usually allow any such things; you have come here unasked, and now we must have a little explanation, our own safety may demand it; at all events we have our customs, and they must be complied with.'
'And what are your customs?' demanded Todd.
'This: you must answer the questions which we shall propound unto you; now answer truly what we shall ask of you.'
'Speak,' said Todd, 'and I will answer all that you proposed to me if possible.'
'We will not tax you too hardly, depend upon it: who are you?'
'Candidly, then,' said Todd, 'that's a question I do not like to answer, nor do I think it is one that you ought to ask. It is an inconvenient thing to name oneself - you must pass by that enquiry.'
'Shall we do so?' enquired the interrogator of those around him, and, gathering his cue from their looks, he after a brief pause continued,-
'Well, we will pass over that, seeing it is not necessary; but you must tell us what you are, cutpurse, footpad, or what not?'
'I am neither.'
'Then tell us in your own words,' said the man, 'and be candid with us. What are you?'
'I am an artificial pearl-maker - or a sham pearl-maker, whichever way you please to call it.'
'A sham pearl-maker! that may be an honest trade for all we know, and that will hardly be your passport to our house, friend sham pearl-maker!'
'That may be as you say,' replied Todd, 'but I will challenge any man to equal me in my calling. I have made pearls that would pass with almost a lapidary, and which would pass with nearly all the nobility.'
'I begin to understand you, friend; but I would wish to have some proof of what you say: we may hear a very good tale, and yet none of it shall be true; we are not the men to be made dupes of, besides, there are enough to take vengeance, if we desire it.'
'Ay, to be sure there is,' said a gruff voice from the other end of the table, which was echoed from one to the other, till it came to the top of the table.
'Proof! proof! proof!' now resounded from one end of the room to the other.
'My friends,' said Sweeney Todd, rising up, and advancing to the table, and thrusting his hand into his bosom, and drawing out the string of twenty-four pearls, 'I challenge you or anyone to make a set of artificial pearls equal to these: they are my make, and I'll stand to it in any reasonable sum that you cannot bring a man who shall beat me in my calling.'
'Just hand them to me,' said the man who had made himself interrogator.
Sweeney Todd threw the pearls on the table carelessly, and then said, 'There, look at them well, they'll bear it, and I reckon, though there may be some good judges 'mongst you, that you cannot any of you tell them from real pearls, if you had not been told so.'
'Oh, yes, we know pretty well,' said the man, 'what these things are: we have now and then a good string in our possession, and that helps us to judge of them. Well, this is certainly a good imitation.'
'Let me see it,' said a fat man; 'I was bred a jeweller, and I might say born, only I couldn't stick to it; nobody likes working for years upon little pay, and no fun with the gals. I say, hand it here!'
'Well,' said Todd, 'if you or anybody ever produced as good an imitation, I'll swallow the whole string; and, knowing there's poison in the composition, it would certainly not be a comfortable thing to think of.'
'Certainly not,' said the big man, 'certainly not; but hand them over, and I'll tell you all about it.'
The pearls were given into his hands; and Sweeney Todd felt some misgivings about his precious charge, and yet he showed it not, for he turned to the man, who sat beside him, saying,-
'If he can tell true pearls from them, he knows more than I think he does, for I am a maker, and have often had the true pearl in my hand.'
'And I suppose,' said the man, 'you have tried your hand at puffing the one for the other, and so doing your confiding customers.'
'Yes, yes, that is the dodge, I can see very well,' said another man, winking at the first; 'and a good one too, I have known them do so with diamonds.'
'Yes, but never with pearls; however, there are some trades that it is desirable to know.'
The fat man now carefully examined the pearls, and set them down on the table, and looked hard at them.
'There now, I told you I could bother you. You are not so good a judge that you would not have known, if you had not been told they were sham pearls, but what they were real.'
'I must say, you have produced the best imitations I have ever seen. Why, you ought to make your fortune in a few years - a handsome fortune.'
'So I should, but for one thing.'
'And what is that?'
'The difficulty,' said Todd, 'of getting rid of them; if you ask anything below their value, you are suspected, and you run the chance of being stopped and losing them at the least, and perhaps, entail a prosecution.'
'Very true; but there is risk in everything; we all run risks; but then the harvest.'
'That may be,' said Todd, 'but this is peculiarly dangerous. I have not the means of getting introductions to the nobility themselves, and if I had I should be doubted, for they would say a workman cannot come honestly by such valuable things, and then I must concoct a tale to escape the Mayor of London!'
'Ha! - ha! - ha!'
'Well, then, you can take them to a goldsmith.'
'There are not many of them who would do so; they would not deal in them; and, moreover, I have been to one or two of them; as for a lapidary, why, he is not so easily cheated.'
'Have you tried?'
'I did, and had to make the best of my way out, pursued as quickly as they could run, and I thought at one time I must have been stopped, but a few lucky turns brought me clear, when I was told to turn up this court, and I came in here.'
'Well,' said one man, who had been examining the pearls, 'and did the lapidary find out they were not real?'
'Yes, he did; and he wanted to stop me and the string altogether, for trying to impose upon him; however I made a rush at the door, which he tried to shut, but I was the stronger man, and here I am.'
'It has been a close chance for you,' said one.
'Yes, it just has,' replied Sweeney, taking up the string of pearls, which he replaced in his clothes, and continued to converse with some of those around him.
Things now subsided into their general course; and little notice was taken of Sweeney. There was some drink on the board, of which all partook. Sweeney had some, too, and took the precaution of emptying his pockets before them all, and gave a share of his money to pay their footing.
This was policy, and they all drank to his success, and were very good companions. Sweeney, however, was desirous of getting out as soon as he could, and more than once cast his eyes towards the door; but he saw there were eyes upon him, and dared not excite suspicion, for he might undo all that he had done.
To lose the precious treasure he possessed would be maddening; he had succeeded to admiration in inducing the belief that what he showed them was merely a counterfeit; but he knew so well that they were real, and that a latent feeling that they were humbugged might be hanging about; and that at the first suspicious movement he would be watched, and some desperate attempt would be made to make him give them up.
It was with no small violence to his own feelings that he listened to their conversation, and appeared to take an interest in their proceedings.
'Well,' said one, who sat next him, 'I'm just off for the north-road.'
'Any fortune there?'
'Not much; and yet I mustn't complain: these last three weeks the best I have had has been two sixties.'
'Well, that would do very well.'
'Yes, the last man I stopped was a regular looby Londoner; he appeared like a don, complete tip-top man of fashion; but Lord! when I came to look over him, he hadn't as much as would carry me twenty-four miles on the road.'
'Indeed! don't you think he had any hidden about him? they do so now.
'Ah, ah!' returned another, 'well said, old fellow; 'tis a true remark that we can't always judge a man from appearances. Lor! bless me, now, who'd a-thought your swell cove proved to be out of luck! Well, I'm sorry for you; but you know 'tis a long lane that has no turning, as Mr Somebody says - so, perhaps, you'll be more fortunate another time. But come, cheer up, whilst I relate an adventure that occurred a little time ago; 'twas a slice of good luck, I assure you, for I had no difficulty in bouncing my victim out of a good swag of tin; for you know farmers returning from market are not always too wary and careful, especially as the lots of wine they take at the market dinners make the cosy old boys ripe and mellow for sleep. Well, I met one of these jolly gentlemen, mounted on horseback, who declared he had nothing but a few paltry guineas about him; however, that would not do - I searched him, and found a hundred and four pounds secreted about his person.'
'Where did you find it?'
'About him. I tore his clothes to ribbons. A pretty figure he looked upon horseback, I assure you. By Jove, I could hardly help laughing at him; in fact, I did laugh at him, which so enraged him, that he immediately threatened to horsewhip me, and yet he dared not defend his money; but I threatened to shoot him, and that soon brought him to his senses.'
'I should imagine so. Did you ever have a fight for it?' enquired Sweeney Todd.
'Yes, several times. Ah! it's by no means an easy life, you may depend. It is free, but dangerous. I have been fired at six or seven times.
'Yes. I was near York once, when I stopped a gentleman; I thought him an easy conquest, but not so he turned out, for he was a regular devil.'
'Yes, he did. I was coming along when I met him, and I demanded his money.
'"I can keep it myself," he said, "and do not want any assistance to take care of it."
'"But I want it," said I; "your money or your life."
'"You must have both, for we are not to be parted," he said, presenting his pistol at me; and then I had only time to escape from the effect of the shot. I struck the pistol up with my riding-whip, and the bullet passed by my temples, and almost stunned me.
'I cocked and fired; he did the same, but I hit him, and he fell. He fired, however, but missed me. I was down upon him; he begged hard for life.'
'Did you give it him?'
'Yes; I dragged him to one side of the road, and then left him.
'Having done so much I mounted my horse, and came away as fast as I could, and then I made for London, and spent a merry day or two there.
'I can imagine you must enjoy your trips into the country, and then you must have still greater relish for the change when you come to London - the change is so great and so entire.'
'So it is; but have you never any run of luck in your line? I should think you must at times succeed in tricking the public.'
'Yes, yes,' said Todd, 'now and then we - but I tell you it is only now and then; and I have been afraid of doing too much. To small sums I have been a gainer; but I want to do something grand. I tried it on, but at the same time I have failed.'
'That is bad; but you may have more opportunities by and by. Luck is all chance.'
'Yes,' replied Todd, 'that is true, but the sooner the better, for I am growing impatient.'
Conversation now went on; each man speaking of his exploits, which were always some species of rascality and robbery accompanied by violence generally; some were midnight robbers and breakers into people's houses; in fact, all the crimes that could be imagined.
This place was, in fact, a complete home or rendezvous for thieves, cutpurses, highwaymen, footpads, and burglars of every grade and description - a formidable set of men of the most determined and desperate appearance.
Sweeney Todd knew hardly how to rise and leave the place, though it was now growing very late, and he was most anxious to get safe out of the den he was in; but how to do that was a problem yet to be solved.
'What is the time?' he muttered to the man next to him.
'Past midnight,' was the reply.
'Then I must leave here,' he answered, 'for I have work that I must be at in a very short time, and I shall not have too much time.'
So saying he watched his opportunity, and rising, walked up to the door, which he opened, and went out; after that he walked up the five steps that led to the passage, and this latter had hardly been gained when the street-door opened, and another man came in at the same moment, and met him face to face.
'What do you here?'
'I am going out,' said Sweeney Todd.
'You are going back: come back with me.'
'I will not,' said Todd. 'You must be a better man than I am, if you make me do my best to resist your attack, if you intend to make one.'
'That I do,' replied the man; and he made a determined rush upon Sweeney, who was scarcely prepared for such a sudden onslaught, and was pushed back till he came to the head of the stairs, where a struggle took place, and both rolled down the steps. The door was immediately thrown open, and everyone rushed out to see what was the matter, but it was some moments before they could make it out.
'What does he do here?' said the first, as soon as he could speak, and pointing to Sweeney Todd.
'It's all right.'
'All wrong, I say.'
'He's a sham pearl-maker, and has shown us a string of sham pearls that are beautiful.'
'I will insist on seeing them; give them to me,' he said, 'or you do not leave this place.'
'I will not,' said Sweeney.
'You must. Here, help me - but I don't want help, I can do it by myself.'
As he spoke, he made a desperate attempt to collar Sweeney and pull him to the earth, but he had miscalculated his strength when he imagined that he was superior to Todd, who was by far the more powerful man of the two, and resisted the attack with success.
Suddenly, by a herculean effort, he caught his adversary below the waist, and lifting him up, he threw him upon the floor with great force; and then, not wishing to see how the gang would take this -whether they would take the part of their companion or of himself he knew not - he thought he had an advantage in the distance, and he rushed upstairs as fast as he could, and reached the door before they could overtake him to prevent him.
Indeed, for more than a minute they were irresolute what to do; but they were somehow prejudiced in favour of their companion, and they rushed up after Sweeney just as he got to the door.
He would have had time to escape them; but, by some means, the door became fast, and he could not open it, exert himself how he would.
There was no time to lose; they were coming to the head of the stairs, and Sweeney had hardly time to reach the stairs, to fly upwards, when he felt himself grasped by the throat.
This he soon released himself from; for he struck the man who seized him a heavy blow, and he fell backwards, and Todd found his way up to the first floor, but he was closely pursued.
Here was another struggle; and again Sweeney Todd was the victor, but he was hard pressed by those who followed him - fortunately for him there was a mop left in a pail of water, this he seized hold of, and, swinging it over his head, he brought it full on the head of the first man who came near him.
Dab it came, soft and wet, and splashed over some others who were close at hand.
It is astonishing what an effect a new weapon will sometimes have. There was not a man among them who would not have faced danger in more ways than one, that would not have rushed headlong upon deadly and destructive weapons, but who were quite awed when a heavy wet mop was dashed into their faces.
They were completely paralysed for a moment; indeed, they began to look upon it something between a joke and a serious matter, and either would have been taken just as they might be termed.
'Get the pearls!' shouted the man who had first stopped him; 'seize the spy! seize him - secure him - rush at him! You are men enough to hold one man!'
Sweeney Todd saw matters were growing serious, and he plied his mop most vigorously upon those who were ascending, but they had become somewhat used to the mop, and it had lost much of its novelty, and was by no means a dangerous weapon.
They rushed on, despite the heavy blows showered by Sweeney, and he was compelled to give way stair after stair.
The head of the mop came off, and then there remained but the handle, which formed an efficient weapon, and which made fearful havoc of the heads of the assailants; and despite all that their slouched hats could do in the way of protecting them, yet the staff came with a crushing effect.
The best fight in the world cannot last for ever; and Sweeney again found numbers were not to be resisted for long; indeed, he could not have physical energy enough to sustain his own efforts, supposing he had received no blows in return.
He turned and fled as he was forced back to the landing, and then came to the next stair-head, and again he made a desperate stand.
This went on for stair after stair, and continued for more than two or three hours.
There were moments of cessation when they all stood still and looked at each other.
'Fire upon him!' said one.
'No, no; we shall have the authorities down upon us, and then all will go wrong.'
'I think we had much better have let it alone in the first place, as he was in, for you may be sure this won't make him keep a secret; we shall all be split upon as sure as fate.'
'Well, then, rush upon him and down with him. Never let him out! On to him! Hurrah!'
Away they went, but they were resolutely met by the staff of Sweeney Todd, who had gained new strength by the short rest he had had.
'Down with the spy!'
This was shouted out by the men, but as each of them approached, they were struck down, and at length finding himself on the second floor landing, and being fearful that someone was descending from above, he rushed into one of the inner rooms.
In an instant he had locked the doors, which were strong and powerful.
'Now,' he muttered, 'for means to escape.'
He waited a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow, and then he crossed the floor to the windows, which were open.
They were the old-fashion bag-windows, with the heavy ornamental work which some houses possessed, and overhung the low doorways, and protected them from the weather.
'This will do,' he said, as he looked down to the pavement - 'this will do. I will try this descent, if I fall.'
The people on the other side of the door were exerting all their force to break it open, and it had already given one or two ominous creaks, and a few minutes more would probably let them into the room.
The streets were clear - no human being was moving about, and there were faint signs of the approach of morning. He paused a moment to inhale the fresh air, and then he got outside of the window.
By means of the sound oaken ornaments, he contrived to get down to the drawing-room balcony, and then he soon got down into the street.
As he walked away, he could hear the crash of the door, and a slight cheer, as they entered the room; and he could imagine to himself the appearance of the faces of those who entered, when they found the bird had flown, and the room was empty.
Sweeney Todd had not far to go; he soon turned into Fleet Street, and made for his own house. He looked about him, but there was none near him; he was tired and exhausted, and right glad was he when he found himself at his own door.
Then stealthily he put the key into the door, and slowly entered his house.
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