Four knocks on the door forced Sweeney out of his stupor. It was the sign they had agreed on, and taking one last look at the cabin to make sure everything was in set, he went to open the door.
Nellie and the man supposedly called Heirloom stood there, her expression one of barely contained glee and anticipation while he just seemed unamused. His hand possessively on her waist, gripping her bodice-covered flesh just below the swell of her breast gave Sweeney an idea of what he'd rather be doing. Nellie had not mentioned the nature of her relationship with Heirloom, only that they were past acquaintances, but judging by the familiarity with which he was touching her—it was borderline indecorous—they must know each other quite intimately.
To nobody's surprise, the green-eyed monster reared its blood-thirsty head, but Sweeney was able to reign him in. For a while, at least. Because soon, whatever relationship he had with Nellie would die and he, as always, would gladly be his executor. Such a shame his filthy blood could not spill.
One just had to take a proper look at him to know what kind of vermin he was. Lustful, dishonest, a despot who abused whatever power his wealth had conferred him to submit others he considered inferior. A man with the same stealthy malice in his seemingly serene gaze and the apparent respectability in his gait as the late Judge Turpin. Not that he had any doubts when Nellie enlisted his help to get rid of this stately home rat, but it was clear that he deserved to die. And that he would, by Sweeney's hand.
Strictly focusing on his appearance, he saw why Nellie assured him nobody would be too surprised by his death, since the man looked like he had one foot in the grave. He was scarily thin, his face gaunt and his complexion yellowing as were his slightly bloodshot eyes. Heirloom simply did not look well and as if to prove his point, he had a coughing fit as soon as they entered the cabin which had him hyperventilating and clutching his chest in obvious pain. Perhaps, Sweeney thought, he was doing him a favour by putting him out of his misery.
"Welcome, how may I assist you?" Sweeney asked with a smile once he'd calmed down. Nellie had once told him that particular smile was forced and creepy but he was certain it made his patrons feel at ease. They never refused a shave when he smiled.
"Mrs. Lovett's ladybits need a trimming" he spoke, not bothering to call her by her fake name. He must have been aware Sweeney was also in the know.
"That will be my pleasure" he said rather salaciously. Heirloom seemed to come alive with anticipation. "But for that, I can't use any of my usual razors. You see, that area is very delicate and susceptible to get… slippery while being taken care of and with these razors, we would only be inviting accidents" He turned to Nellie, who was behind Heirloom with a big grin on her face. "Eleanor, would you be so kind to go to my cabin and fetch my smaller razor? You know where they are." She replied affirmatively so Sweeney looked back at Heirloom. "In the meantime, how about some pampering, sir? A soothing skin massage? A stylish trimming of the hair, or how about a shave? Pardon my forwardness, but I detect a subtle stubble that we could tackle right this instant."
"That's why I've been telling him!" Nellie exclaimed. "A stubble shows carelessness and frankly, us lassies can do without the tickles."
A small giggle had Sweeney smirking and Heirloom rolling his eyes at her sly attempt at humiliating him. Yet before he could say anything, Sweeney doubled down on his gentle coaxing by stroking his ego. That was always the dealbreaker with men like him. "Fret not, sir. I can take care of that effortlessly, giving you the closest shave you'll ever get. Complimentary, of course, since you came here with another service in mind. It would be my honour to shave such a distinguished face."
"Very well" he finally agreed and just when Nellie was about to leave the cabin, he forcefully grabbed her arm. "Don't be long" he hissed.
"Of course not, Heirloom, darling! Be back in a jiffy!" she said as she left the cabin with a spring in her step, not before whispering something in his ear that had his stern face breaking into a lewd smile. Sweeney's jealousy was at a boiling point. He couldn't wait for that man to drop dead.
"Bloody idiot, she never gets my name right!" he complained once she was gone, and just as Sweeney suspected, that confirmed Heirloom was not his name. Still, he did not deem it appropriate to ask. "Though, she is quite the spitfire in the chamber, hence I am able to excuse her frequent slip-ups. Besides, it's not like she can talk much with my… endowment gagging her."
Sweeney's jaw tightened. Even if he had an inkling regarding their relationship, he did not like this man talking about her this way. As if she were nothing but a hot body to fuck. But you used to think the same, he acknowledged with a grimace. She deserved better than either of them.
Although he said nothing and merely guided him to his chair, the man not named Heirloom seemed to notice his discomfort. "I apologise for my crudeness. It must not be easy to hear a man speak about your sister in such terms. I know it wouldn't for me, but then again, my sister is not a courtesan but a proper lady."
His half-hearted apology had turned into disrespect once more. Was this man just naturally unpleasant? At least the Judge possessed some finesse. Furthermore, this Heirloom man was not aware of his precarious situation. He was at mercy of the demon barber, who'd slaughtered dozens for much less. His throat was bare beneath his hand…
The point of Lord Russell's remark, which was to denounce her former profession to her brother and hopefully cause a rift in the family, had gone amiss. Perhaps she hadn't bothered to conceal her immorality from her brother, perhaps it ran in the family, Hieronymus thought, although he seems to be much more respectable and honest.
The truth was, it did not make a difference to Sweeney in the way he saw her. He'd long suspected she'd resorted to prostitution in the long years he spent in Botany Bay, and he did not consider it demeaning. She did what he had to do to keep herself from starving. If anything, he was relieved her relationship with this man was strictly professional. At the same time, he was sorry she had to deal with the likes of him and hoped the rest of her clients were better.
Not wasting any more time, he handed him the port spiked with bleach. Sweeney watched with bated breath as he wet his lips, before he commented on the perceived quality of the beverage as if he were a connoisseur. Sweeney caught him eyeing the fancy bottle on the vanity, and was suddenly aware of what prompted his high opinion. He was glad it had fooled him, that meant he was less likely to squirm at the taste.
He took a sip, soon followed by another, seemingly not tasting anything different in the drink. Maybe that tropical illness had killed his tastebuds, and if that was the case, what a bliss.
Sweeney had the sudden urge to give him a piece of his mind before the bleach took effect. "I think fireball in the chamber falls short to describe our dear Eleanor. She is a complete conflagration of lust and passion, and beauty and brains, and underneath it all, a kind heart that's been abused by filthy rats like you. But your haughty mug is too far up your pompous arse to see it, sir."
He quirked an eyebrow, his expression haughtier than ever. "Do you have any inkling as to whom you are talking to? I could ruin you, you and Eleanor and your whole family of lowly…"
His tirade was interrupted by a cough and to quench it, he drank some more wine. What a bleeding fool. Next time he coughed, there was blood in it. "Help me!" he begged in between coughs, but Sweeney merely smiled. He was enjoying this. "Help! I can't breathe!"
Sweeney half-heartedly removed the cape that he'd tied around his neck to begin shaving him, but it did nothing to alleviate him. His trachea was likely on fire, his lungs slowly combusting as the bleach ate him away. Even if he somehow got medical help, if his desperate screams managed to alert someone just in time, he knew they could nothing to save him.
As much as he'd love to watch his demise, he had to finish up the last touches of the plan. First one was to remove his glass of wine, before he dropped it and spilled its contents on the floor. Instead, he replaced it with a perfectly harmless cup of earl grey. Heirloom gulped it, hoping it would help but the boiling water did him no favours. It predictably burned his throat and the insides of his mouth. Enraged, and with what Sweeney thought the last of his strength left, he flung the cup across the room. "Help! Doctor!"
Sweeney knew it was his cue to get him a doctor. To pretend he'd done everything to save him, as if he hadn't put everything into motion. Because the cabins were not soundproof, other small businesses were adjacent—including that of the doctor merely three doors away— and they would be suspicious if Sweeney just left him to die.
Suddenly, the door burst open. But instead of another man who worked on the ship or the blasted doctor, it was Harold Winslow. Nellie's fiancée was looking more flustered than he'd ever seen him.
"My Lord!" he exclaimed, horrified at the sight before him. His panicked eyes travelled to Sweeney. "What did you do!?"
Although shocked to be directly blamed for something that at first glance would seem like nature taking it course, the barber kept his cool. Unless the analysed the contents of his stomach, which as far as Sweeney knew was impossible, they couldn't determine that he'd ingested some bleach in his wine.
"Get a doctor, quick!" Harold commanded before Sweeney explained he'd done nothing, as he performed some first aid manoeuvres on Heirloom. But the man was barely responsive as he twisted in pain, more blood coming out of his mouth. Sweeney did as told, eager to play the part of the concerned passenger, and soon he returned with doctor Allermann.
He examined the now-passed out man and soon started with the questions, but Nellie had taught Sweeney how to answer. No, Heirloom hadn't drunk or eaten anything but some tea when he started coughing, Sweeney stated. The boiling tea accounted for the burning marks down his throat and his stained shirt and the teacup that was smashed into pieces all over the carpet made it all more believable.
The doctor simply sighed and shook his head before informing them that he believed that his lungs had been permanently damaged by Blackwater Fever and given his age, there was little they could do. He gave him a tonic to help him rest and gave instructions to transport him to his room. At this point, they could only pray, he said. Despite his sombre look, Sweeney was grinning inside, knowing fully well that even if bleach wasn't as instantaneous as Nellie's go-to poison, it was just as deadly. Not even a miracle would save him.
Promising to check on Heirloom later, Doctor Allermann returned to his cabin and to his patient he'd left mid consultation, leaving Sweeney and Harold to carry him to his cabin. Unfortunately, Nellie's new man decided to start a conversation with whom he believed to be his future brother-in-law.
"Poor man" he began and Sweeney fought not to roll his eyes at the mere sound of his voice. "He just went in for a shave and left your parlour at death's door. Wait, where have I heard that before?"
All alarms rang in Sweeney's head. He couldn't be referring to… "He came in and began coughing like mad. Gave him a cat lap but it didn't help" he nervously parroted what he and Nellie had rehearsed. He couldn't afford Harold suspecting he had anything to do with Heirloom's likely demise. No matter that the method he'd used was different, he could not afford to be remotely connected with London's murderous barber, even if that was who he truly was.
"Cat lap? That's what you call tea and biscuits, right? I've only heard it in the London East End, but you're from Liverpool, are you not?" Sweeney nodded.
"Lived in London for a while, fell in love with and East End woman." That was the truth, couldn't he just stop asking? He was always asking questions…
"Ah, lovely. Must have been a long-lasting intense affaire, because I detect a twinge of London when you speak. The fog, the streets filled to the brim bring such memories. I am born and raised in such…"
"It's rice, dear, as in rees. Try rolling your /r/ a bit. The book says that Lanky speakers have strong /r/ sounds, I guess that means you have to roll it, right? I don't know." Nellie spoke, trying to get him to repeat after her, but Sweeney just rolled his eyes.
"Why must I? This is just a waste of time" he said rather gruffly. There was a blizzard outside and neither had any patrons coming in, but that did not mean he didn't have better things to be doing than repeating words like a dumb child learning to speak.
"Rees. Did I do it right, mum?" The actual dumb child spoke and Sweeney rolled his eyes even harder as Nellie ruffled his already messy hair that was probably full of lice.
"We'll need it one day, maybe. In a year or two, when we leave all of this behind after our purpose is achieved. Especially if we have to do a runner because the bluebottles are hot on our heels" she whispered the last part and any other day, he would have told her that he saw no future beyond his revenge on the judge and in any case, he was not planning to share the rest of his gloom existence with his landlady, let alone the useless waif.
Today, however, all he could think about, was how utterly beautiful she was.
As he scanned her features, from her luscious hair she'd recently coloured rust like the blood he spilled—not that he had anything against her natural chestnut curls—to her chocolate eyes rimmed with a thousand lashes and down to her full lips, Sweeney's heart raced in a way that was foreign to him. It wasn't how it had beaten for Lucy all those years ago, or at least, that was not how he remembered. It made him feel uneasy, but he could not avert his gaze.
"Shall we try scouse next? Or Yorkshire? I'm partial to Lanky because I feel like pretending to be from Blackpool is rather fitting if you ask me, but maybe you'll find other accents more to your liking. Or we can go wild and go Scottish! Scotland sounds like a lovely place" she blabbered on like she always did. If she noticed the way he was looking at her, she let it slide.
What happened next was a blur. He recalled ordering Toby out and Nellie to get on her knees to take care of his rising arousal. She complied without much hesitancy, and soon they were on top of the settee ravishing each other like mad. He didn't do anything differently, no matter that his heart timidly urged him to. Nor did he let her know he found her beautiful. Not even when he buttoned up his trousers after they were done and readied himself to leave her parlour desperately seeking some clarity, when out of the corner of his eye he saw her shed a lone tear, likely feeling used once more.
You should have told her, then, you bleeding idiot, he argued with himself, but it was too late. Now she will never believe you.
"It's concerning, the rampant crime the city has seen lately. Like that Sweeney Todd who murdered men and his accomplice Eleanor Lovett who cooked them up." Sweeney was brought straight to the present by Harold's words. "The monster is said to have perished in a fire along with that poor excuse for a woman, but there's the rumour that they escaped. Some are even saying he is aboard our ship and he is to blame for Mr. Coone's death, but I don't know… He was a barber in London too, did you ever meet him? I reckon you must have frequented the same circles…"
"I was a grocer in London and it was in Shoreditch. That barber operated near the river" he said rather curtly, sticking to the lie. He could tell Harold had every intention to keep asking, and he was almost certain that this was no longer mindless small talk... But fortunately, they arrived at the almost-deceased's room in that precise moment. "I have to get back to work."
Much to his dismay, Harold had no other choice but to nod and as soon as Sweeney helped get Heirloom on the bed, he left. He was barbering for the rest of the evening, for it always proved to be the best way to calm his jittery nerves and the million thoughts running through his head.
Harold Winslow… there was something strange about that man, and his distrust went beyond his prospective marriage to the woman Sweeney loved. It was in the way he looked at him, in his suspicious interest on his razors and his Nellie, how he was always in the right place at the right time and now all these questions about his past and Sweeney Todd had been the last nail in the coffin to awaken his paranoia. But what could this all mean? Could Harold have an interest in catching Sweeney and Nellie? Was he perhaps a friend of the late judge or the beadle? Or one of the many men whose names he didn't bother learning before Sweeney slit their throats? Or could he be an admirer? He certainly seemed to appreciate his razors… Or maybe this was all a coincidence, a potentially dangerous one.
The rest of the evening went by quickly, and he still hadn't reached a conclusion when it was time to close up shop. Resigned, he decided to retire to his room. Perhaps his answer would come if he slept on it. But right outside the cabin, he ran into doctor Allermann, who was also closing for the day.
"How is…" he hesitated, for he didn't know the man's actual name nor his surname to refer to him by. "the gentleman?"
"Lord Russell just passed, I'm afraid" the doctor replied. The sadness in his voice was evident, and Sweeney guessed he was one of the few doctors that truly cared about his patients. Sweeney found himself feeling sorry for the man and it shook him to the core. Since when was Sweeney Todd able to feel compassion for a stranger? Mere weeks ago, he would have grouped him together with every other piece of vermin he counted every living being as, and empathy was something he reserved for himself only. But this just proved he was changing, perhaps not drastically, but changing, nonetheless. He was becoming more human and it still was not enough.
The doctor interpreted his silence as grief, and put a gentle hand on his shoulder for support but he swatted it away. He was still rather uncomfortable with physical contact. Still, the doctor did not shy away and attempted to comfort him with his words this time. "The duke had been ill for a while, it is not your fault. You couldn't have done anything to save him…"
Oh, but it was absolutely his fault and while part of him felt slightly guilty for what Doctor Allermann was going through, he felt nothing but relief that Lord Russell was dead if he posed any harm to Nellie. The duke… he hadn't known he was a duke, but he could only guess what that kind of powerful rat was capable of, the very many ways in which he could have hurt his love. In any case, he was dead now and it was well-deserved. He couldn't wait to tell Eleanor.
He said his goodbyes to the doctor and went to find her. She was not in the cabin she'd told him was now hers, so he guessed she was at the dining saloon. Unlike for the poor, dinner was oftentimes a social event that went on for hours when it came to the privileged class. Sure enough, when Sweeney went up the stairs that led to the saloon, it was filled to the brim. It looked like they were having some kind of party so they either ignored what had befallen Lord Russell or they just didn't care.
Spotting Nellie was easy, for she was eye-catching in an emerald dress in the middle of the room, singing a tune while a young man played piano. Everyone around her clapped and cheered as she bowed and twirled like the star she was. She was so in her element, front and centre, her charisma making up for her humble upbringing to make it look like she truly belonged among them, minted crowd. Sweeney could picture her in the nearby future, hosting her own parties in her mansion by the sea and being the life and soul of each one she attended, surrounded by friends, chums coming over every Friday for high tea, married nice and proper... It was the life she dreamed about and who was he, to ever try to hold her back? A selfish bastard was the answer, but not anymore.
It wasn't long before the luminous baker spotted him, their eyes meeting for a second as she politely excused herself and went out to meet him. Greeting each other with nothing but a nod, Nellie suggested they went out to the deck so they could have privacy.
"He's dead" he announced, not beating around the bush. The sooner he was out of her life, the better off she'd be.
"That was quick, I've heard it sometimes takes people days to die after taking bleach" she commented, her voice cold. Even if he'd helped her, he wasn't forgiven. She wouldn't cave in so easily this time. Or ever again.
"You know what I always said, the lives of the wicked should be made brief" he teased, smirking just slightly but she remained expressionless.
"You also said we all deserve to die" Even you, Mrs. Lovett, he'd said, spitting out her name in disgust as if it were poison. As if she were just as expendable as the rest of them, wicked, unworthy of being spared. In Sweeney's eyes, she was also vermin to be eradicated.
"Not you, or the child." He meant it now, but she found it hard to believe. To Nellie Lovett, his words were meaningless in the wake of his actions. She averted her gaze, willing herself not to remember the fire, and the oven, and the bloodied bodies, and her own lie, and what he almost did. "You deserve to be happy, after all you've been through."
There was some truth in his statement, she too had been through a lot and his own suffering and pain did not cancel hers. She wondered how much he knew about her past, or if he was simply referring to the abuse he subjected her to ever since he returned. It had to be the latter, because she hadn't told him anything about her life before him and it wasn't like he talked to anyone else, but lately she had the feeling that he just knew somehow. In any case, it was what he was implying what had her on edge. That somehow, that made her worthy of happiness.
If she still had any genuine mirth in her, he would have laughed at the suggestion. Happy, what did that even mean? Could she say she had ever been happy? Or just content, comfortable, perhaps even full of promise, for the briefest season of her life, back when she was a child who did not know the ways of the world. After that, it was slap after slap, as if a divine force kept reminding her that no matter how hard she tried, her place was at the bottom, amongst the unfortunate ones.
She still dreamt not to drown in her despair. Even today, she allowed herself to fantasise about a better life once they got to America, with Harold and her baby, in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean, living the lavish lifestyle she always coveted. But she was not delusional enough to think that would inevitably lead to happiness. That would elude her until the day she passed on, she feared. Because she was wicked, sinful, dark and tainted, fatally flawed since the moment she was born… No, she did not deserve happiness.
"I don't think I can" she admitted, her voice small. It was the most vulnerable she'd been in front of him, in front of anyone, in a very long while. And it scared her, but instead of mocking her or using it against her, he smiled. Reassuringly, genuinely. Her heart fluttered despite herself.
"You will. In your mansion, surrounded by all your new dresses and your children, and your new friends. You will never go hungry again…" he said, his smile never faltering.
She shook her head, for he too was mistaking a comfortable life for a happy one. Money did not buy happiness, it only added to it. Yet the longer he stared at her, smiling—and not in a creepy, self-serving way, but kindly, as if he truly cared and wanted her to be well. As if he truly… felt something for her—the warmer she felt. Perhaps happiness was not so far-fetched… if only her future was with the right person by her side. With the man she'd always dreamed would love her.
Demons can charm you with a smile, for a while… Toby's words were like a bucket of ice cold water thrown over her. He was charming her again, with nothing but some sweet words and a smile, but she should never forget this was a demon. A demon who not long ago wanted her and her child dead, a demon who almost succeeded in killing her merely a couple of days ago. Demons didn't know love or happiness.
"Anyway, thank you for killing him. Now, goodbye." She had to get away, as fast as she could because if she didn't leave now... she didn't trust herself not to repeat her old mistakes all over again. She barely made it out alive last time…
He watched her retreating form, his smile now pained. This was it. She was leaving him, and even if they still had two more days until they reached New York, he was certain she would not seek him out again. She was still hurting for what he did and only wanted to move on. It hurt. And Sweeney knew he could seek her out himself, he could tell her he loved her once again, and all the truth about his timeline jumping experience so she understood what had changed in him, but would that do any good? He would only be clipping her wings. She deserved better than Sweeney, even this new version of Sweeney would only hurt her, as time had proved and now she had a real shot at a better life. But that man she was going to marry…
"Eleanor, wait!" he called, unable to help himself. She turned around, confused and also slightly miffed. He hesitated. She clearly hadn't forgiven him and did not trust him, so was it worth it? To upset her when he wasn't even sure. Besides, Nellie was a clever woman, if Harold was up to something fishy, she would have noticed by now… She isn't clever when it comes to love, that's why she loved you, that pesky voice inside his head pointed out and it was right. Hence, he had to ask. "How well do you know Mr. Winslow?"
"What kind of question is that? Why do you care?" she asked back, visibly angry now. She stomped her feet to bridge the distance between the two. "Do you really want to know if I whored myself out to him? Well, yes! Yes, I did!" Technically, that was only a half truth, because Harold fell asleep before he put it in her but he didn't need to know that. "You're not special Sweeney. And unlike you who never cared to commit, we shagged after he proposed, because he's a gentleman who respects me! And he was so good, so much better than you. Thick and nice and strong, he made me feel things you never could!"
"Are you done!?" he asked, the clenching of his jaw betrayed that he was mad with anger. God, she was stupid, to rile him up like that… She readied herself for his blow-up, she wasn't far from the door, if she ran and closed it, she could save herself, and there was also the emergency ladder just across the bridge... She tentatively took a step back, but the unleashing of his fury and the unsheathing of his razor did not come. Instead, he only took a deep breath before he spoke again to a confused Eleanor Lovett.
"That's… not what I meant" he said through gritted teeth. Of course it bothered, but it wasn't like she owed him any fidelity anymore. "There's just something about Harold Winslow, Eleanor, something suspicious. He's been asking too many questions. About London, and us, and Sweeney Todd… and he has a fascination with my razors and…" he began, unsure of how to approach the topic without making it seem like he's jealous.
"He's just a curious man!" she interrupted. "There's nothing more to it, he asks about your razors just like he asks about my dresses and my eating habits! And he's like that with everyone! He's always asking questions…"
He raised an eyebrow; what Nellie thought to be a quirk of his personality was more suspicious than he first thought. His razors, her dresses many of which she brought from Fleet Street, her eating habits that had changed now that she was pregnant… those questions seemed to have a very specific intent and could not be mere coincidences. But there was more. "And why is he always around? The ship is big enough not to run into him, and he was right behind the door when the duke started coughing up blood, or when Mr. Coone was murdered and the sailors wanted to interrogate you, and wasn't he near the loading dock when we had that… altercation? Ready to take you in his arms like your knight in shining armour. Really, Nellie, don't you find it odd, how quickly he took to you? He didn't even wait a week to ask for your hand in marriage…"
"Oh, bugger off, Sweeney! Just because you thought me a pastime to warm up your bed at night, it doesn't mean that he can't have honest intentions" she swiftly dismissed his concerns. But he had hit her where it hurt and before she knew it, the dam of her insecurities had broken. "It doesn't mean I can't sweep a man off his feet and make him just to spend the rest of his life with me. Just because… Because I'm not young anymore, because I am not fair and delicate like your Lucy was, because I am expendable and, and common and uneducated, and coarse and I'm not beautiful, and you may be right and I'm just a filthy whore that doesn't…"
He cut her self-loathing tirade with his lips on hers, tasting the salty tears that had begun falling in a kiss that made their hearts come back to life.