ST fic: The Lady of the House of Lovett (gen, PG-13, 1/1) Title: The Lady of the House of Lovett Author:shyaway Rating: PG-13 for mild sexuality and horror Characters: OMC, Mrs Lovett, Sweeney Todd Disclaimer: Not mine. Used without permission or remuneration but with as much love and respect as Sweeney has for his friends. A/N: Thank you to hereswith for betaing, and apologies to Angela Carter for the title. Summary: What worse luck could there be than finding oneself a customer of Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd? Happy Friday the 13th.
The city was retiring to bed, as far as a city entrusted with the dominion over the globe ever could, by the time your matter of business was concluded, and as you stepped out onto the street into the shadows, you could have wished that your hotel were closer. The flocks of anonymous black-hatted City men you had found so oppressive earlier had dwindled to hurrying ones and twos, quickly swallowed up by the dark streets, while the only women remaining were painted unfortunates the like of which you never saw in your country town.
There have been many like you. Perhaps you were a younger son bent on squandering his allowance, or a provincial doctor wishing to see the new hospitals. You might have come from abroad; London has an appetite for foreigners, to see and be seen in her ascendancy, as she rises to the zenith of her power that will tint over a quarter of the world red. Or you might be in town to search for employment; a newcomer to the workshop of the world. You would not be a lady, certainly not, if you were out alone on the streets at this time of night. You could not be female at all to take this route.
This time you were a country gentleman, the owner of three or four farms, widowed some two years since, come up to London on business. The hotel your estate agent had booked was further from the offices than it had seemed on the map, and there was not a cab to be got; the city had swallowed up them too. You could only go on through the labyrinthine streets and trust to the silken cord of your memory to guide you home.
Thus you came to walk Fleet Street late at night, feeling the chill press of the shadows, and see the light in Mrs Lovett’s window.
Mrs Lovett’s, you supposed it to be, by the gilt paint letters above the window illuminated by the lamplight; and then, flickering, the addendum ‘meat pies’. You had not eaten since the morning.
The interior was in darkness except for that one lamp, and the Hungarian lanterns strung above the courtyard were dimmed. A small party of late diners were just taking their leave. Though the proprietress was not in evidence, there was a young boy wiping down the tables outside, and bidding the departing customers good night. You made your enquiry of him, pleased by his open, honest countenance.
“We’re closed, sir, but there might be something left over,” he said, as respectful as you could wish. “If you’ll wait, I’ll ask –”
The rustle of a lady’s skirts cut him off.
A lady, you were bound to expect from that audible shimmer of taffeta, so in turning to face her you had the unsettling sensation of expectations raised and confounded. Her face was formed from the same porcelain as her more well-bred sisters, but the dress was too ornate for a respectable lady, the expression too hard, the hair too wild, and your scrutiny was met with the challenging stare of a woman unsure of her gentility but determined that no one else should question it.
“The gentleman wants a pie, mum,” the boy told her. Still she frowned, and looked to the lit streetlamps for proof of the lateness of the hour. “He’s all the way from the West Country.”
Then she smiled. “Oh, you’re a stranger here. Welcome.”
You heard the city in her voice. You had been pining for the Somerset burr, but she spoke and smiled, and you heard London, the city where the streets were paved with gold, the capital of the world crowned with the great dome of St Paul’s, the industrialised queen whose empire could grow only wider.
“Come in, sir,” she was saying. “I’m sure we can find something for you.”
Now you hesitated, feeling her to be too formidable to be trespassed upon and yet that she could not be denied. “If you’re sure it’s no trouble –”
Her hand was on your arm then, soft, insistent, magnetically female in a way that you had not experienced since the loss of your wife. “No trouble, of course not…” She glanced over your shoulder and a crease like a knife-cut appeared between her brows. You turned to see a shadow, like a woman’s ghost, pass through the pool of gaslight cast by the streetlamp opposite.
Mrs Lovett smiled again. “Just a beggar,” she said, and held the door open for you. “Toby,” she called as an afterthought, “you go to bed now. I’ll finish up out here.”
“Right, mum.” You could not tell whether he meant it in the maternal sense or merely the respectful. He had no marked resemblance to her. You noticed that her hand on the door bore no wedding ring.
The boy followed you into the shop, then disappeared into the back rooms. You stood awkwardly by the counter, on her territory now. You expected her to serve the food there in the shop, but she took up a pie and dimmed the lamp with a practised gesture that gave the impression that, doll-like, she ran on clockwork, and then beckoned you into the parlour.
She sat you down and fed and watered you and it might have been like home, except that this little room, full of china and textile pretensions to the middle class, was not like your home, and she was not like any woman you had ever known. Not like your lady, or the women of the farms, tanned from their work at the harvest – you thought that Mrs Lovett would take good care to ensure her skin remained milk-white – or the vicar’s wife, a lady of charitable works and no airs. You had an inkling that the vicar’s wife would not care for Mrs Lovett.
But her mouth curved as she listened to you and yours did as you listened to her saying what a breath of fresh air a country gentleman was and looked at her sitting so that her shoulders were rounded and inviting in the lamplight and tasted her wares that were as sweet and strange as a first kiss.
The inhabitant of the rooms upstairs could be heard crossing the floor from time to time. Mrs Lovett would look up at the ceiling at that. Curious – you would have thought a city-dweller would be accustomed to living in such proximity to the rest of humanity.
She said not to be fooled, sir, life in the city was lonely for a widow.
She was making a play for your money, you supposed, but it didn’t seem to matter. You had no objection to paying her for the food and the company, and would certainly pay her more if she gave you a place to sleep.
How to say it – you had thought of the farm women earlier. You followed one of them to the dairy, not long ago, and watched her unawares for a while as she pressed the cheeses; all milk-breasts and apple-cheeks she was, and you thought to ask her… Then she had looked up, and seeing the master, bobbed a curtsey, a little flustered, not afraid but slightly wary as modest women were of men, and it had suddenly been too shaming, skulking in the dairy lusting after maids, and you had slunk away.
Mrs Lovett met your gaze. In her the apple had been bitten, the fresh cream skimmed. She put each question as deftly as a seamstress binding a seam – where were you staying? That’s a long way, sir, and you might be set upon by footpads. Was anyone waiting for you? A pity. But no need to hurry back then, was there?
Her hand was on your arm again and her bosom swelled as she breathed. She touched shoulder, leg, rump. Her hand was sure and her eye was knowing and you took her meaning clearly enough – clearly enough for her purpose. When she turned her face away as you made to kiss her, you thought it the remnants of modesty, or a scrupulous remembrance of her husband. Skin almost touched skin; she felt the scrape of your whiskers.
She moved back. That, she said, needed to be attended to.
When you queried her, your breath coming fast, she replied with feminine logic. If you did not go now, when you left her in the morning, you would have to do so with an unshaven chin, the sure sign of a night spent disreputably from one end of the kingdom to the other. Would you shame her before her neighbours?
You protested that you would take care not to be seen, but she was insistent. The barber was only upstairs. It would not take long. Tell him she sent you.
It would be worth it, you supposed. As she stepped out of the light back into the pie shop, her hair was the rich red-brown of horse chestnuts, like the ones you planted along your drive for future generations.
She took you through the shop and showed you the stairs to ascend. She shut the door behind you.
The night was still darker now, and you half-expected to find the barber’s door locked and the man abed, but a voice answered your knock and then a bell announced your arrival on his premises. He was alert and dressed.
Again a moment of dissonance, like stepping through the looking glass, or a cloud crossing the moon. This room was a bare workspace, the man must live downstairs with the woman and the boy – who you now remembered did resemble this man. What was her game, sending you to him?
The cloud uncovered the moon and you saw that there was a bed, a stove, the rudiments of existence, after all. Still it was a strange, spartan life even for a young bachelor; more so for the man of over forty you now saw he was. You thought his face a closed one, his eyes tired, and he glared at you much as his female counterpart had done. You thought that this late visit must be an intrusion after all, and offered to leave – only, Mrs Lovett had thought... Immediately he was all obsequience.
“It’s no trouble, sir. What can I do for you?”
You explained some of the history of your stay – that you had no valet with you, that you had dined at the pie shop and Mrs Lovett had recommended you go to him – with the guilty sense that he guessed the rest. What he thought of it, you could not tell.
“I can certainly help you. Please sit down.”
You approached the chair he indicated, the chair that dominated the whole room, a primitive wooden throne. It lay between you and him, and in looking at him, you noticed beyond him the photograph on the dresser. You strained, and perceived the ghostly outline of a woman, a sepia Madonna and child. He saw the direction of your gaze.
“Please sit down,” he said again.
He spread the white cloth over you; with him so close you smelled a liberal application of cologne. There was something else there, underneath, something very familiar but yet not to be identified.
“You keep a dark establishment,” you said, in an attempt at civility, to lighten the silence.
“Very dark.” He stood behind you, making his preparations; his voice was a velvet cord in the darkness. It sounded as if he were smiling. “My landlady is keen on thrift, so I save the gas.”
“Your landlady – Mrs Lovett?”
He made some noise in his throat that you took to be acquiescence.
You felt rather than saw him hovering close to you, behind you, over you. There was the unctuous smear of shaving cream anointing your cheek, the soft tickle of the brush on your throat. His unfamiliar touch evoked a shudder; he moved his fingers on your neck, over the veins and muscle and sinew there, as if calming a spooked horse, or a lover.
Beneath your ear you felt the chill press of the razor’s handle.
“I don’t know your name,” you said to quell your shapeless unease.
“Sweeney Todd.” He said it as if speaking of someone else. “There is no need to remember it.”