"Mrs. Lovett, I need you to watch Johanna for me. The beadle is here; He says the judge is all contrite, blames himself for my dreadful plight- you know, Benjamin. I must go straight to his house. She's in her crib, upstairs," Lucy told me, waving goodbye and taking off down the street with the beadle.
"Do you 'ear that, Albert? Needs me to watch Johanna. Then she jus' leaves. Doesn't wait for an answer. Maybe I've got somethin' to do!" I huffed, feigning anger. In truth, I love babysitting Johanna, the bit of Benjamin I could touch without raising suspicion.
"But ya ain't got nothin' ter do," Albert pointed out, sitting lazily in a booth. He turned the page of his newspaper idly.
I scowled, "Yer a great bloody 'elp, ya are. Yer supposed ter be on my side. Mr. Barker got sent away cause 'e wouldn't leave 'is wife. You'd throw me to the bloody dogs, ya would."
Albert chuckled behind his paper, "Were the dogs clamoring for ya again? I told ya to wash up after handlin' the meat."
I glared, "That's not wot I meant and ya know it."
"Oh, stop. Ya know I'm crazy abou' ya, Nellie. 'Sides, there ain't no proof that Barker got sent away cause Turpin 'as a thing fer Mrs. Barker."
"That's wot makes it so scary. That's why 'e got sent away, but there ain't no proof. That judge? 'E could do the same to anyone," I shivered. "Ah, well… I'd better be goin' up ter Johanna."
"Wot abou' me dinner?" Albert pouted, lowering his paper.
I could do a bloody fan dance with Benjamin's razors and he wouldn't notice, but threaten his meals and he's all ears!
"I ain't got nothin' I 'ave ter do, remember? Guess that means ya get ter make yer own dinner. I'll be back whenever Mrs. Barker gets 'ome," I trudged up the stairs smiling as I left Albert to fend for his-self.
"'Ello, little Johanna," I cooed, picking her up. "Yer Aunt Nellie came to see ya since yer mum went off wit' the beadle.
"Oh, if yer mum knew, Johanna," I couldn't help but laugh. "If yer mum knew wot I think o' yer father? She would never ask me ter watch ya, that's fer sure. Not to mention wot me Albert would say…
"'Ardly seems fair. Yer mum? She's basically sayin', ''Ere, Nellie. 'Old the love me and Benjamin-the man yer in love wit'- made.' That'll rub salt in the wound, that's fer sure."
Johanna blinked at me, a wide grin on her face, as I babbled inanely.
"Ya probably won't remember 'im, yer dad I mean. Wot wit' 'im being transported an' all. Yer dad, though? There ain't none like 'im," I sighed, lovesick just at the thought of him. Johanna screwed up her face, preparing to wail.
"Don't fret, pretty girl. 'E'll be back. I knows it… Someday… Yer mum knows it, too. She'd 'ave run off wit' Turpin, no doubt, if 'e wasn't. She always needed someone to provide fer 'er.
"Ya look like yer dad, ya know. Yer gonna be so beautiful, jus' like yer dad. Sure, I mean, I guess yer mum's nice-looking enough. In a traditional way. Yer dad was so beautiful, though.
"'E was such a nice man, 'e was. So kind. Always 'ad a smile fer everyone, 'e did. An' them eyes…
"Don't get me wrong, Johanna. I love me Albert. But there ain't no one that can take yer father's place in me heart.
"Like I said, yer mum wouldn't ask me to watch ya if she knew," I smiled at Benjamin's little girl.
"'Ow'd yer mum and dad end up together, anyway? Yer mum was rich, wasn't she? 'Ow's she end up wit' Mr. Barker an' not the judge? Oh… Look who I'm askin'. Not that yer dad was at all a trade down. Ya know 'ow I feel 'bout yer dad. I loves 'im, I do. But I would think yer mum's parents wouldn't be too keen on 'er marrying outside 'er class. Yer grandparents, I mean. I never 'eard nothin' 'bout you lot goin' ter visit.
"I bet they think they're better than 'im jus' cause they 'ave money. Ain't no one better than Mr. Barker," I told Johanna.
"All that probably makes it sound like I wish I was in yer mum's place 'stead o' wit' me Albert. Well, jus' a secret 'tween us girls: I do. I would 'ave given anythin' to 'ave been wit' yer father, to 'ave been the one 'e loved. It's yer mum's ruddy fault 'e got sent away, ya know. Cause she made eyes at the bloody ol' judge."
I switched the child to my other hip as I prepared to go back downstairs. "I think we've scared yer Uncle Albert enough. Let's go save 'im from 'is 'unger, shall we? Lord knows the man can't cook fer 'is life."
Hours later, Lucy still wasn't back and Johanna was sleeping soundly.
"It's in me chair," Albert complained.
"She's not an 'it.' 'Er name is Johanna an' she needed someplace to sleep," I scolded. "An' ain't ya the least bit worried? I mean, 'er father's been transported an' now 'er mum's run off? The poor darlin'!"
"'Er mum went out. She didn't run off, Nellie," Albert corrected. "An' where am I supposed ter sit?"
"Stop whining, Albert! Whining and brooding away… 'Ave I told you 'ow attractive that's not? Sit on the couch. Or in a booth. Albert… Can we keep 'er? She's an orphan now! We can raise 'er as our own. Please, Albert?" I begged, tearing my eyes from Johanna to plead with Albert.
"Nellie, love, we can't jus' steal someone's child," Albert reasoned.
"It's not stealin'," I responded indignantly. "'Er mum left 'er wit' us. She's our responsibility, really."
"Mrs. Barker will be back."
"Ya don't know that! She might 'ave decided to stay wit'-"
I was interrupted by the tinkling of the bell announcing someone had entered my shop. The sound was accompanied by crying.
"Mrs. Barker? Wot's wrong, dear?" I asked, heading to the front of the shop.
Lucy stumbled into the parlor, saving me the trip. Her skirts were torn and tears were streaming from her bright blue eyes.
"Albert, go an' make 'er some tea," I ordered, ushering the crying woman to the couch and sitting beside her. "Wot 'appened, dear? Wot's wrong? It still hitting you that Mr. Barker is gone?"
She hiccupped before the tears started anew. The only words I was able to make out among her babbling into my shoulder were "ball," "laughed!" and something about the judge.
"It's okay, dear. Take a deep breath. It's okay," I patted and rubbed he back. "Now, tell Nellie again."
Tears still in her eyes, she started again, "I went with the beadle to Judge Turpin's house and when we got there, he was having this party. Everyone had masks on, but I still don't think I knew anyone there. Somebody pushed a glass into my hand and I did have a few… I- I thought the judge had repented, thought he was going to bring Benny back. So, I asked where Judge Turpin was… I found him… He- He-" She cried into my shoulder again, but I didn't miss a single word this time. "He forced himself on me. Everyone was watching and they all laughed!"
"Mrs. Barker! You poor thing! You poor, poor dear!" I hugged Benjamin's wife to me. "You poor, dear soul!- Albert! 'Urry wit' that tea!"
"No," Lucy pulled away from me and stood up. "No, don't bother. I thought I could wait for Benjamin to come back, thought I could be strong for him and for Johanna… But I can't, Mrs. Lovett. I just can't." She raised a bottle I just noticed to her lips and drank.
"Wot is that? Wot are ya drinking?" My eyes went wide as the realization dawned on me. "No!" I pulled the bottle from her grasp and threw it to the floor, the resulting crash waking baby Johanna.
"Wot's goin' on?" Albert asked, rushing back into the parlor, tea in hand.
"'Elp me get 'er to the couch," I instructed.
"She tried to poison 'erself," I explained after we had Lucy settled. "Arsenic. I'd guess from the apothecary 'round the corner."
"That's it, then," Albert sighed. "The Barker child is an orphan after all."
"She's not dead yet, Albert. She only had a few sips. She might not die!" I snapped at him.
"She won't be the same," Albert argued.
And I knew he was right. But I couldn't give up on her. Not yet. For Benjamin.
"Jus' 'elp me get 'er to the bed."
"She's gonna lie in our bed now? First me chair, then me bed…" But he helped me anyway.
"You can 'ave the couch," I offered. I knew I wouldn't sleep that night.
I was right. Lucy woke screaming at least four times; Johanna three.
For months, I took care of Lucy and Johanna both at the expense of my shop. But Albert knew not to argue.
I wanted to put Lucy in the hospital, but Albert wouldn't let me.
"We really don't have the money, Nellie. I know yer heart is in the right place, but we can't afford it."
He was right, of course. But that didn't help me feel any less guilty. I knew something was wrong, I knew she shouldn't have gone with the beadle that night, but I didn't say anything. So, I had to do everything I could now for Lucy, for Benjamin.
I still don't know how, but Lucy managed to run away. I only took my eyes off of her for a minute to change Johanna. But it was too long. Lucy, crazed and not knowing who she was, ran from the house. I sent Albert to look for her, but it was too late.
"Where is she?" I demanded when he returned from his search. Johanna was playing on the floor next to me with the rolling pin.
"I asked around, but she's gone, Nellie. Beadle Bamford said she's in Bedlam," Albert answered, sitting down to his dinner.
"Ya asked the beadle? Ya must be cracked in the head, ya idiot! What if they come fer Johanna?" Johanna scowled slightly, mirroring my expression, before erupting in a fit of giggles.
"No one's gonna come fer the Barker child," Albert said dismissively, waving a hand before biting into a meat-pie.
He was wrong.
Two days later, Judge Turpin himself showed up on Fleet Street, beadle in tow.
"I'm 'iding the girl!" I whispered harshly to Albert before hurrying up the back stairs to Benjamin's loft.
"Shh, Johanna," I cooed, falling into a corner just as me Albert answered the door. "Aunt Nellie needs ya ter be very quiet. We're gonna play hide-an'-seek. Ya 'ave ter be quiet, pretty girl."
"The Barker child?" I heard Albert ask loudly. "She must 'ave taken it wit' 'er when she ran away. Sold it fer quid, maybe."
I heard footsteps heavily on the stairs and couldn't hold back the tears that stung my eyes. "No!"
Johanna still in my arms, I rushed to grab the box of Mr. Barker's razors and hid them under a loose floorboard.
They took Benjamin and they're coming for Johanna. But they can't take this last piece of him! I won't allow it!
"Johanna Barker," Judge Turpin smiled, seeing the blonde child in my arms.
"No," I cried, hugging her closer. "Not Johanna! This is me daughter, Dorothy. I don't know what Mrs. Barker did wit' littl' Johanna, but this is my daughter! Ya 'ave ter believe me, yer Honor."
Judge Turpin smiled wickedly, "Get the girl."
"No! Please! Judge Turpin, please! Not me littl' girl!" I begged, tears streaming down my cheeks.
"You must think I'm stupid. This girl looks nothing like you," I saw his eyes rake my body. "Or your fat husband. You expect me to believe that you and he conceived a child that looks like Lucy Barker?"
"Please? Please!" I pleaded, reaching for a crying Johanna. "Please, sirs! Please, don't take 'er!"
Judge Turpin shook his head as he took Johanna from the beadle and turned on his heel, taking Johanna with him. The beadle followed close behind.
"No! Please!" I crumpled in a heap, my strength having left with Johanna. Benjamin, forgive me.
"Where are ya goin' wit' me daughter?" I heard Albert demand. Bless him.
"Unless you want to end up like the Barkers, I'd advise you get out of my way," Judge Turpin threatened with a growl before the door slammed close.
"Nellie? Nellie, are ya okay? I tried, Nellie. Honest, I did," Albert told me, sitting with me on the dusty floor. He rocked me gently back and forth until my tears subsided and I fell into a fitful sleep, one thought on my mind: Forgive me, Benjamin.