Chapter 18: Another Morning, We Wake Up
"No! Sweeney…please! No," she pleaded when she realized he meant to sacrifice himself to save her. "Don't do this. Please, Sweeney. I—" her words were muffled with his hand clamped over her mouth. His face only hardened in the midst of her pleading.
But she would not give up. She would not give him up. She would have slapped him again if only to push the sacrificing thoughts off his mind.
She struggled in his grasp not minding if the razor would scrape her skin. But Sweeney was too careful. He promised he would not spill her precious blood again, did he not? How did he suddenly become the man she deserved?
The clanking of boots came nearer as the pounding of her heart grew louder. Her struggles became more frantic, but Sweeney was nowhere near conceding.
"Good Lord, Nellie!" The voice of a woman screeched. And before the exclamation ended, Sweeney was thrown off her and she was frantically pulled to sit up.
It took a moment before she had reconciled with her lightheadedness that she recognized Rachel pawning over her, searching for any visible wound. Pity she could not see the wound in her heart.
"Nell, Nell, are you alright?" She shook her head, meaning to clear off the remaining wooziness in her head, but it only sent Rachel into a more frenzied state. "Tell me where that bastard hurt you!"
Only when Rachel made to refer to her bastard lover did the room centered in on her. Sweeney was on his back, unmoving, as he received a series of punches from a man—from one Sebastian Oakley.
Sweeney was not fighting; not even shielding himself from the blows. She knew he deserved the beating for the lonesome nights he put her through. Hell, he deserved it for the wound that pierced through her heart and soul. But she could not let him waste away like this. She could not let him willingly present himself to death.
With a burst of her remaining strength, she threw Rachel off her; crawling to where Sweeney was being made a punching bag. She tried to grab the butcher by the arms, but she was no match with his strength fueled by his anger.
"No, please, no! It was just an act! He was not trying to kill me! He would not hurt me. Please stop it now!"
No one listened to her.
Abandoning her attempts to stop the beating by restraining the butcher, Nellie wedged herself between him and her barber. She embraced Sweeney, wanting to make a shield of her back from Sebastian's hits.
Nellie closed her eyes, still pleading for the beating to end, but also anticipating the next blows. There was, however, no blow that came.
"What? What are you talking about Nellie?" Rachel was hovering over them, shoulder to shoulder with an equally confused Sebastian.
Nellie ignored them, her whole being was focused on the unmoving man he was shielding. Now that there was no beating to worry about, she channeled her mounting hysteria to anger. She slapped Sweeney hard in the face for the second time that night.
"What are you playing at, you bastard?" She gripped him by the collar of his shirt and shook him. "Get up there and be a man. You can't die on me, you idiot!" She was about to slap him again when Rachel successfully pulled her off her barber.
"Nell, Nell, breathe. Try to calm down, will you?" Rachel coaxed her but her ears were all on Sweeney.
"I'm sorry, Eleanor." He said, still unmoving.
"You should be! After all you've put me through. I've gone through hell when you left me. You should be more than sorry!"
Finally, her accusing but teary words prompted him to get up. He put up his hands in surrender for Rachel's and Sebastian's benefit; letting them know that no physical harm would come their way. Despite Nellie's words, she took steps to meet him. Her one hand landed to his arm, gipping it hard while her other stayed on her chest, feeling the erratic beating of her heart.
Their eyes met, and perhaps it was the deep emotion he saw in hers that moved him. He tried to move his lips but at first, no words came. When at last he mustered his voice, she already understood what he would like to convey. It was a second nature to her: reading his thoughts and understanding his heart.
"Eleanor…I—" Mid-sentence, though, she cut him. It was all she wanted to hear but it was not the time and place. She wanted to hear it following a tender moment; not when murder has just been committed with blood splattered just about everywhere. Not when Sweeney had just exacted his revenge and overwhelmed with the giddiness of it. Certainly not when Rachel and Sebastian could intrude in her precious moment.
Her finger touched his lips, stilling his words. "Shhh…shhh…I know."
"Nell! For goodness sake! What's happening here?" Rachel asked, completely bewildered.
The panic of getting caught came rushing back. However, the thought that she and Sweeney would be facing it together; that Sweeney was in no danger of being carted off to waste again in a prison island; allowed for a bit of calm to settle in her.
Her voice was less weary when she addressed Rachel and Sebastian. "Turpin tried to rape me," she explained matter-of-factly. "Sweeney came into my rescue just in time to slit the scoundrel's throat." She waved his hand to the direction of the corpse.
"Why then was Be—Sweeney also trying to slit yours?" asked Rachel.
"He wasn't." Her voice was definite, inviting no argument despite Rachel's raised brows. "Well…we thought you were the bobbies. That the scoundrel brought bobbies with him, and Sweeney panicked. He staged it that he was also trying to kill me to spare me from being caught." Touching Sweeney's hand as if to remind her he was still there, she added, "He was trying to save me."
The sincerity of her little speech did the convincing—for when she looked at her old friend, there was understanding. When she looked at the butcher, there was trust.
With them two, she felt safe.
She had just let out a small sigh of relief when Sebastian asked, "So how do you plan to escape this?"
As practical as she was, she was still overwhelmed with Sweeney's willing sacrifice to come up with a plan.
It was Rachel who stepped up. "First thing to do was to dispose this bloody corpse here." She was already inspecting Turpin's dead body.
Nellie's life was an open book to her friend but baking Sweeney's corpses into meat pies was not something she wanted Rachel to ever know.
"Maybe we can dump him into your sewer and let his bloated body be found in Thames?" Rachel suggested.
The wheels in her mind started turning. "No…no. I'd rather he not be found. Let gossipers spread he packed it up to marry Johanna somewhere else in the world." She felt Sweeney's hold on her hand tightened at the mention of her daughter. "We could burn him in my big old oven at the bake house. There'll be no trace then but the horrid smell of smoke. But we're in Fleet Street. It's not uncommon."
"You better hurry now and take Johanna to flee." Rachel was already motioning her hands to send Nellie and Sweeney away. "Mr…Sebastian, you better help me to carry this bloke down the oven. Me poor bones won't be able to handle it."
Nellie chanced a glance to the butcher who nodded; already removing his coat to help Rachel dispose of the corpse.
"Nell, come on, move! You must go pack and leave!"
She trusted Rachel with her life, and with a startling realization, so did Sebastian. So, she pulled Sweeney with her out the door, and sent him to his barbershop to get things he might have missed when he first left. As soon as she entered the room, she went straight under her bed to retrieve her earnings. One pouch she secured on her corset; the other one she put in a carpet bag along with a few of her clothes. The bag was packed to the fullest with mementos closed to Lia's heart and the girl's dresses she left behind. She would dump the bag to the girls, to make sure they were provided for in case they parted. But she would make sure to tighten her clasp in their hands.
She returned to the parlor hoping to bid her friend goodbye.
Sweeney was already back at the murder scene, in hush conversation with Rachel who was down to her knees—already scrubbing blood off the floor. She cleared her throat to announce her presence but only when Sweeney gave Rachel a curt nod, did they turn their attention to her.
Rachel washed her hand first in a ready bucket beside her before she stood up to squeeze Nellie into a hug; overly careful that not a single drop of blood would rub on her dearest friend. "Take care of yourself and your darling girl. Kiss her for me." Rachel pecked her cheeks before whispering, "Always remember you have a family here in Fleet Street."
Too overcome with emotion, Nellie only managed a nod before she too kissed her friend and muttered a teary "Thank you".
Brushing off the tears in her face, Rachel urged her to flee before both fell into a sobbing mess. "Off you go, my dearest friend. Don't you worry about all the church bells here, I'll handle them meself. I'll tell you two flee the town to wed off and avoid scandal because you already have a bun in the oven. That'll be a feast day for them, and none will be the wiser of the truth. Go now and don't worry about the mess here. Only think of where you'll want to start anew with your family."
Rachel did not provide her a moment to respond. She motioned to Sweeney who did not waste his time to pull Eleanor with him this time, guiding her out of her Fleet Street abode. They were almost a block away when she mustered strength to clear away the tears brimming in her eyes. Though her vision was still blurred, she craned her neck to catch a last glimpse of her home—where she first loved and waited for her love's return, and where she bore and raised her darling girl.
There were no more visible lights from within and her shop's door remained closed. She felt a tug in her heart caused by her own sentimentality until her glance went up to the smoke coming out from her chimney. Her eyes might have been playing tricks on he—for instead of going skyward, the smoke was heavy as it carried itself down; enveloping her home until it was covered in darkness and no longer visible. She thought to herself as Sweeney tugged her forward: it must be a sign for her to find another place to love.
The stars in heaven must have aligned for them that night for the cobbled streets remained empty. The night was cold but Sweeney's presence beside her provided warmth. He told her he promised Rachel, he would not let her go, so his arm remained firmly around her.
Halfway through their trip, in a cold, dark alley, she was pushed suddenly to a wall. In an instant, Sweeney was on her, holding her waist to him, his lips attached to hers in a passionate embrace. The lust that has been surmounting since Turpin's murder finally overcame them as they grope each other. But when they were untangled from their kiss for lack of air, they were reminded of their mission: "The girls…" With much struggle, they righted their clothes and went their way.
Their trek to Turpin's mansion was without any obstacle and her surmounting apprehension of meeting her daughter was soothed with Sweeney's arm around her waist. Sweeney led her past the gate and round the back where he pushed open the smaller gate without effort. She wanted to ask him how he became familiar with the mansion's layout, but thought it was not the time.
They crossed the backyard swiftly. He tried on the latch, but the door did not bulge. Before Sweeney could break a window and gave them away, she pulled a pin out of her messy curls and picked the lock. "Ever practical as always," she heard Sweeney muttered under his breath. The door opened to the kitchen, with Lia sitting calmly by the candlelight, looking as if she was expecting their arrival. The girl stood briskly when they entered, her posture indicating she was ready for anything to come that night.
All Nellie wanted was to hug her; tell her she missed her, but Sweeney ruined the moment by announcing murder.
"Turpin is dead."
Lia nodded as if expecting that too. No emotion was traceable on her face. "And what do we do now? Do we need to flee London?" It was a question that needed no answer—the girl knew. "I'll go get Johanna."
But Sweeney halted the girl's retreat. "The butler…"
"He's taken care of," Lia announced without flinching.
How could it be? It felt like ice shards cut through Nellie's spine, spreading coldness that almost numb her. She no longer restrained herself from blurting out, "What? How's he took care off? Dd-did y-you…"
"No, mother, I didn't kill him. I mixed a heavy dose of sleeping draught in his tea, he won't wake until tomorrow." Relief rushed through her that her girl was not a murderer but more so that Lia acknowledged her as her mother. Mother—it was a happy melody to her ears.
The girl was off to her task, and before they knew it, she was back with Johanna—both carrying a bag of their things. They were ready to flee.
Sweeney, however, was in a trance. His whole vision was centered on Johanna, the babe he left behind that was now a grown lady. Only when Johanna looked down in embarrassment was the trance broken.
Without a word, he led them down the path to the port. Johanna meekly followed. Nellie wondered if Lia might have somehow told the girl some details or she was simply relishing her escape from Turpin, but she would wait until they were at sea to ask.
The port was busy when they arrived and although she could smell the sea, she could only see the black vastness of it and not the blue one that could instantly calm her heart. There were lorryloads of cargos coming into the ships as well as a spattering mixed load of passengers. They have no idea what were passenger ships and whatnot. Worse, they have no idea as to when these ships would sail and to where.
Sweeney was about to usher them in the nearest ship, probably to bargain for their passage, when she heard someone calling her name. "Eleanor! Eleanor!" A breathless voice shouted. And as she squinted her eyes, the form of one Sebastian Oakley was drawing nearer from one of the ships. "Rachel urged me to rush in here," he explained while panting, with his half body bowed to his knees. He acknowledged Johanna and Sweeney with a nod while he flashed Lia with a sad smile. "I'm relieve you've been successful in freeing the young miss."
"Here," he said while thrusting a stack of paper to her hands. "Consider these as my parting gift. That's the ship going to Bordeaux where Anthony's pals are on board," he explained while point to the direction from where he came. "They secured you a cabin to yourselves and promised to look after you all so expect a knock on your door."
She did not know what to say—only that she was beyond grateful. Honestly, he bore no obligation to them, but he did all he could to help, nonetheless. Sebastian awkwardly patted his hair in embarrassment before turning to Lia with open arms. "Won't you indulge this old butcher a big hug for goodbye?"
Her girl did not hesitate to jump into the butcher's arms, patting his back as she heartily teased him to make sure and find a loving wife.
"You better head to the boat now before the crowd thickens. It'll sail as soon as morning breaks." He took Nellie's hand and like a gentleman, kiss it goodbye. "Au revoir, madame."
In the butcher's small gesture, it dawned on her how much he cared. And how much he has done for her and her family because he cared. It was not mere infatuation on his part as she initially suspected but sadly, she could not return it. She did, however, wanted to repair it in one small gesture too. In an impulse, she flung her arms to his neck and offered him one sweet kiss full on the lips. This was her parting gift for him.
"Goodbye." Before he could react, she had disengaged herself from him. She felt Sweeney's cold hand catching hers, and a warm smile graced her lips as she felt him squeezing it in understanding and assurance. She waved one last farewell as Sweeney held her—steering him and the girls to their ship with a one-way ticket out of greasy, gloomy London.
They have encountered no trouble when they boarded the ship. A sailor—Anthony's pal—recognized the cabin number stamped on their tickets and escorted them straight to their quarters. He was very much happy to be of service to his friend's family—that was how the butcher introduced them to the crew when he acquired their tickets. Nellie did not bother correcting the lad. Anthony, after all, was family.
Even though the sailor was very much happy to meet them, reminiscing about Anthony casted a cloud of gloom over them all. Johanna, the dear girl, was even reduced to tears. She was the one to break the silence once they were alone in their cabin. Crumpled to the bed, she cried, "What will happen to me now? I don't know anything. And without Anthony, I am all alone."
Lia went to her, rubbing her back as she tried to calm her. Nellie took this time to search for Sweeney's eyes. If he wanted to claim back his place as Johanna's father, now was the time. It was either to tell the girl now or remain silent for the rest of time. She could see his hesitation, but she knew that regret would harden him more should he failed to shower Johanna some fatherly love. So, she made the choice for him.
In a clear voice that rang out in their tiny quarter, she told Johanna, "My dear girl, you are not alone. You have a family in us. We will not abandon you." She joined the girls in the bed to pat Johanna's curls. "Come on dear girl, stop the tears. Please do it for your father."
The magic words did stop the girl's crying. Johanna raised herself from the bed. "My father?" she asked Nellie. "Lia told me you knew my parents. My father—do you know where he is?"
Nellie did not wait for Sweeney's permission. She told Johanna, simply, "Your father's here. Sweeney, here, was Benjamin Barker. He is your father, my dear girl."
Johanna's face was in confusion. Overwhelmed with the turn of events, she flung herself again on the bed to cry. Lia turned to soothe her again, but Nellie halted her efforts. Instead, she beckoned Sweeney to step in. Still, there was hesitation. She started to move to drag Sweeney to his crying daughter, but Lia had her beaten. With much gentleness, Lia was coaxing Sweeney to move one step at a time. It was clear to see that despite the horrid truths, Sweeney could not deny Lia anything. He made it to Johanna and with Lia's and Nellie's encouraging smile, he wrapped his arms around his girl.
"Stop crying now…my Jo…my Jing…Father's here."
It was their cue to leave the father and daughter alone. So, she clasped her own dear girl on the elbow and led her out the door to the deck. There was also some talking and repairing that the two of them needed to do. She had high hopes for she knew her daughter always had the capacity to forgive.
Her girl was quiet, looking away at the sea despite having nothing there but darkness. Lia had barely addressed anything to her since they reunited in the manor. She knew she needed to initiate their reconciliation as she hoped it will all come down to it. Lia's hands were clammy as she patted them from where they hang onto the rails of the deck. It was a relief that the girl did not pull her hands, however, she felt the girl stiffened beside her.
"Am I still not forgiven?" Despite trying to hold her emotions at bay, she could hear the quiver in her voice.
"Is there anything to forgive?" The girl asked but remained transfix on the darkness; not sparing her a glance.
"Lia, my heart, my dearest child, I am really sorry for all the lies. I told myself when you were born that the truth about your father will never be known because I didn't want to hurt you. But when Sweeney asked if you're his, I thought maybe it was my chance to give you a father you deserve; the father you've always wanted. That was my moment if insanity and I am really sorry, my baby."
"I've moved past all that. There's nothing we could do to make Mr. T my real father now, is there? Besides that, the real one is gone."
"Why is it then that you're cold and distant? Please tell me what I need to do to make it all better. By God, I will do it all, Lia. Anything for you."
The girl took her time to respond. Slowly, however, Lia turned her head to finally look at her mother. The sadness pooling at the girl's eyes intensified her own.
"I don't know…mother," Lia answered lamely, displaying distress by picking on the collar of her dress. Nellie could see that the girl was fighting to stem off her tears. "Do you hate me? Do you regret having me? It must have pained you to see me every day as a reminder of how you were violated."
"No, Lia, of course not. Why would you think that? I will never hate you."
But the girl was not listening as she was finally overcome by her crying. Tears were freely flowing in the girl's face. "All my life, I thought you love me. But now I know I was never meant to be. That I was even worse than an accident. I'm so hurt to think that you must have hated me all this time."
Nellie could not restrain herself any longer. She gathered the crying girl in her arms. "I love you; I love you; I love you. You are everything that I ever asked for. I've always wanted to have a daughter and you are my wish coming true. I love you, Lia. Never doubt that. You will always be my heart."
She felt her girl clung to her tightly, and she knew that the mounting distance between them has vanished. "I love you too, mummy."
Sweeney found them still cuddled on the deck just as the sun was breaking out, signaling the start of another morn. Silently, he went to them and draped an arm around mother and daughter, consciously filling in the missing shoes to complete their family. They leaned into his embrace as the ship horn announced the start of their voyage.
With guilt, and anger, and sadness ebbing away, Nellie looked at the faces of those she held dearest. Then her face turned to the sea. It was the blue sea of the dreams she carried from her childhood, and the one that carried her through her lonesome years. But now, the tide has turned and when the ship docked at the port, she would run straight to the shore and dipped her toes in the water. She would probably prance around the water to her heart's content, with Sweeney and the girls joining her. Then they would build their house of dreams in the sand, only they know that their home would stand.
The girls were cramped at the floor of their small cabin, each leaned on either of her knees while she sat in contentment on the lower part of the bunk bed. Across them, Sweeney was sat on the floor too, sharpening one of his razors with the leather strop she gifted him when he first re-opened his barbershop. They were gathered round to listen Lia read her favorite of her Dickensian novels—the life of Pip and Estella—one that Nellie packed from the girl's room.
The knock they were waiting for came. Anthony's pals drop by earlier to invite the girls on a tour of the ship, followed by a supper in the kitchen. Sweeney was vehemently aghast to the invitation at first, thinking that it was too great a risk to allow the girls to mingle with what he called a rowdy bunch. Though the lads were anything but for they were almost like Anthony—gentle in their ways. He had been won, in the end, without even Nellie intervening. It seemed that the girls have him wrapped around their dainty fingers too. Their pouting pleas, wishing not to be cooped up in their quarters for the rest of their trip, made Sweeney reconsider.
Lia happily closed her book to open the door for the sailors and hopped on to the promised tour. They were only allowed to go, however, with a threat delivered in Sweeney's cold voice: that should any trouble befall his girls, sailors' blood will be spilled.
"Are we going to trail them?" she asked as soon the door closed on them.
"Do you not want…to be alone with me?" The question surprised her, but it did cause her to smile.
"Well, do I have reasons to want to be alone with you?" She was teasing, and he easily caught on.
He pulled her up to him and crashed his mouth to hers, almost leaving her breathless when he drew away. "Is this a good reason enough?"
"You, alone, is always enough for me, Sweeney," she answered honestly, with her heart's content deeply reflected in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Eleanor. You don't deserve the way I hurt you."
She squinted her eye, trying to read him better. With his face cupped between his hands, she told him, "You'll give your life for me. That's more than I deserve."
"I'll do it again. My life is yours, Eleanor…because I love you."
She knew it, of course, before he even said it. But hearing it from him it, makes it even more true. Hearing him said it soothe away all the uncertainties in her heart.
With her hands already untying the lace on her dress, she tempted him, "Show me how much you love me, Mr. T." She let her gown pooled on her feet. His hands went to her back to help lay her down the floor. Sweeney's lips massaged her throat following the beat of her pulse as his fingers feasted on the stays of her corset.
Once he had completely rid of the corset, his lips moved to her tender bosom. She moaned as he nipped across her mounds, feeling his ministrations so intensely as she had never felt before. Tentatively, she felt him stopped, then his lips were replaced with his hands, groping her chest carefully until they glided down to the curves of her waist then to her stomach, doing the same.
Suddenly, he pulled away a bit, hovering over her still. His thumb brushed her cheek as he looked at her in wonder. "Are you…with child?"
Her brow knitted in confusion. Had she heard him right? Hoping to address her bewilderment, he asked her again, "Eleanor, are you with child?"
"Am I?" Her eyes were wide in awe; her voice was a mixture of the emotions engulfing her: apprehension, worry, excitement. Sluggishly, she struggled to sit up. Only with Sweeney's support did she manage to hold her torso upright. Surely, they were not doing anything to prevent it, but was it possible that she was carrying another child?
She looked down at her bosom and touch them the way Sweeney did. She was mildly surprised by their tenderness and how they seem to overflow from her tiny hands as she cupped them. Then, beyond her chest, she looked down at her belly. There was a barely perceptible roundness and as she squinted her eyes, the more certain she was of her growing mound.
Cradling her belly, she finally answered him, "I think I am." She dared not look at him, unready to read his mind. "Are you happy?"
He tilted her chin so he could see her face. Her smile further resolved his heart. He kissed the corner of her lips, widening her smile.
"Together with you, yes."
Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who read and supported me in this story. You have all my love. Special shoutout the friends who inspired me—AngelfireAlly, Moonlightshadoww, Ratty Darling and Beneath the Skin (they're all very brilliant writers, btw), without whom, I would have abandoned this fic unfinished.
I'm actually sad it's ending but quite relieved too that it's completed. There might be an epilogue somewhere down the future but for now, I'm ending it here.
I think I might be going back to reading all the Sweenett fics I've haunted before. But please also do take a look at Aeipathy (another one-word title!). I started its first chapter in the middle of Metanoia thinking I will alternate them, but brain capacity could not handle it. Hahaha. Soon, I hope, I can get back to that fic because my heart is still full of Sweenett.
Big warm hugs to everyone. xxx