The String of Pearls/Chapter 7
VII The Barber and the Lapidiary
It is night and a man, one of the most celebrated lapidaries in London, but yet a man frugal withal, although rich, is putting up the shutters of his shop.
This lapidary is an old man; his scanty hair is white, and his hands shake as he secures the fastenings, and then, over and over again, feels and shakes each shutter, to be assured that his shop is well secured. This shop of his is in Moorfields, then a place very much frequented by dealers in bullion and precious stones. He was about entering his door, just having cast a satisfied look upon the fastenings of his shop, when a tall, ungainly-looking man stepped up to him. This man had a three-cornered hat, much too small for him, perched upon the top of his great, hideous-looking head, while the coat he wore had ample skirts enough to have made another of ordinary dimensions. Our readers will have no difficulty in recognising Sweeney Todd, and well might the little old lapidary start as such a very unpre-possessing-looking personage addressed him.
'You deal,' he said, 'in precious stones.'
'Yes, I do,' was the reply; 'but it's rather late. Do you want to buy or sell?'
'Humph! Ah, I dare say it's something not in my line; the only order I get is for pearls, and they are not in the market.'
'And I have nothing but pearls to sell,' said Sweeney Todd; 'I mean to keep all my diamonds, my garnets, topazes, brilliants, emeralds, and rubies.'
'The deuce you do! Why, you don't mean to say you have any of them? Be off with you! I am too old to joke with, and am waiting for my supper.
'Will you look at the pearls I have?'
'Little seed-pearls, I suppose; they are of no value, and I don't want them; we have plenty of those. It's real, genuine, large pearls we want. Pearls worth thousands.'
'Will you look at mine?'
'Very good; then I will take them to Mr Coventry up the street. He will, perhaps, deal with me for them if you cannot.'
The lapidary hesitated. 'Stop,' he said; 'what's the use of going to Mr Coventry? he has not the means of purchasing what I can present cash for. Come in, come in; I will, at all events, look at what you have for sale.'
Thus encouraged, Sweeney Todd entered the little, low, dusky shop, and the lapidary having procured a light, and taken care to keep his customer outside the counter, put on his spectacles, and said, 'Now, sir, where are your pearls?'
'There,' said Sweeney Todd, as he laid a string of twenty-four pearls before the lapidary.
The old man's eye opened to an enormous width, and he pushed his spectacles right up upon his forehead, as he glared in the face of Sweeney Todd with undisguised astonishment. Then down he pulled his spectacles again, and taking up the string of pearls, he rapidly examined every one of them, after which he exclaimed, 'Real, real, by Heaven! All real!'
Then he pushed his spectacles up again to the top of his head and took another long stare at Sweeney Todd.
'I know they are real,' said the latter. 'Will you deal with me or will you not?'
'Will I deal with you? Yes; I am quite sure that they are real. Let me look again. Oh, I see, counterfeits; but so well done, that really, for the curiosity of the thing, I will give £50 for them.'
'I am fond of curiosities,' said Sweeney Todd, 'and, as they are not real, I'll keep them; they will do for a present to some child or other.'
'What! give those to a child? you must be mad - that is to say, not mad, but certainly indiscreet. Come, now, at a word, I'll give you £100 for them.'
'Hark ye,' said Sweeney Todd, 'it neither suits my inclination nor my time to stand here chaffing with you. I know the value of the pearls, and, as a matter of ordinary and every-day business, I will sell them to you so that you may get a handsome profit.'
'What do you call a handsome profit?'
'The pearls are worth £12,000, and I will let you have them for ten. What do you think of that for an offer?'
'What odd noise was that?'
'Oh, it was only I who laughed. Come, what do you say, at once; are we to do business or are we not?'
'Hark ye, me friend, since you do know the value of your pearls, and this is to be a downright business transaction, I think I can find a customer who will give £11,000 for them, and if so, I have no objection to give you £8,000.'
'Give me the £8,000,' said Sweeney Todd, 'and let me go. I hate bargaining.'
'Stop a bit; there are some rather important things to consider. You must know, my friend, that a string of pearls of this value are not to be bought like a few ounces of old silver of anybody who might come with it. Such a string of pearls as these are like a house, or an estate, and when they change hands, the vendor of them must give every satisfaction as to how he came by them, and prove how he can give to the purchaser a good right and title to them.'
'Psha!' said Sweeney Todd, 'who will question you, who are well known to be in the trade, and to be continually dealing in such things?'
'That's all very fine; but I don't see why I should give you the full value of an article without evidence as to how you came by it.'
'In other words, you mean, you don't care how I came by them, provided I sell them to you at a thief's price, but if I want their value you mean to be particular.'
'My good sir, you may conclude what you like. Show me you have a right to dispose of the pearls, and you need go no further than my shop for a customer.'
'I am not disposed to take that trouble, so I shall bid you good-night, and when you want any pearls again, I would certainly advise you not to be so wonderfully particular where you get them.'
Sweeney Todd strode towards the door, but the lapidary was not going to part with him so easy, for springing over his counter with an agility one would not have expected from so old a man, he was at the door in a moment, and shouted at the top of his lungs, 'Stop thief! Stop thief! Stop him! There he goes! The big fellow with the three-cornered hat! Stop thief! Stop thief!'
These cries, uttered with great vehemence, as they were, could not be totally ineffective, but they roused the whole neighbourhood, and before Sweeney Todd had proceeded many yards a man made an attempt to collar him, but was repulsed by such a terrific blow in his face, that another person, who had run half-way across the road with a similar object, turned and went back again, thinking it scarcely prudent to risk his own safety in apprehending a criminal for the good of the public.
Having thus got rid of one of his foes, Sweeney Todd, with an inward determination to come back someday and be the death of the old lapidary, looked anxiously about for some court down which he could plunge, and so get out of sight of the many pursuers who were sure to attack him in the public streets.
His ignorance of the locality, however, was a great bar to such a proceeding, for the great dread he had was, that he might get down some blind alley, and so be completely caged, and at the mercy of those who followed him.
He pelted on at a tremendous speed, but it was quite astonishing to see how the little old lapidary ran after him, falling down every now and then, and never stopping to pick himself up, as people say, but rolling on and getting on his feet in some miraculous manner, that was quite wonderful to behold, particularly in one so aged, and so apparently unable to undertake any active exertion.
There was one thing, however, he could not continue doing, and that was to cry 'stop thief!' for he had lost his wind, and was quite incapable of uttering a word. How long he would have continued the chase is doubtful, but his career was suddenly put an end to, as regards that, by tripping his foot over a projecting stone in the pavement, and shooting headlong down a cellar which was open.
But abler persons than the little old lapidary had taken up the chase, and Sweeney Todd was hard pressed; and, although he ran very fast, the provoking thing was, that in consequence of the cries and shouts of his pursuers, new people took up the chase, who were fresh and vigorous, and close to him.
There is something awful in seeing a human being thus hunted by his fellows; and although we can have no sympathy with a man such as Sweeney Todd, because, from all that has happened, we begin to have some very horrible suspicions concerning him, still, as a general principle, it does not decrease the fact that it is a dreadful thing to see a human being hunted through the streets.
On he flew at the top of his speed, striking down whoever opposed him, until at last many who could have outrun him gave up the chase, not liking to encounter the knock-down blow which such a hand as his seemed capable of inflicting.
His teeth were set, and his breathing came short and laborious, just as a man sprung out at a shop-door and succeeded in laying hold of him.
'I have got you, have I?' he said.
Sweeney Todd uttered not a word, but, puffing forth an amount of strength that was perfectly prodigious, he seized the man by a great handful of his hair and by his clothes behind, and flung him through the shop-window, smashing glass, frame-work, and everything in his progress.
The man gave a shriek, for it was his own shop, and he was a dealer in fancy goods of the most flimsy texture, so that the smash with which he came down among his stock-in-trade, produced at once what the haberdashers are so delighted with in the present day, a ruinous sacrifice.
This occurrence had a great effect upon Sweeney Todd's pursuers; it taught them the practical wisdom of not interfering with a man possessed evidently of such tremendous powers of mischief, and consequently, as just about this period the defeat of the little lapidary took place, he got considerably the start of his pursuers.
But he was by no means yet safe. The cry of 'stop thief!' still sounded in his ears, and on he flew, panting with the exertion he made, until he heard a man behind him say,-
'Turn into the second court on your right and you will be safe. I'll follow you. They shan't nab you, if I can help it.'
Sweeney Todd had not much confidence in human nature - it was not likely he would; but, panting and exhausted as he was, the voice of anyone speaking in friendly accents was welcome, and, rather impulsively than from reflection, he darted down the second court to his right.