Author's Note: This is a Sweeney Todd fic I wrote for Christmas! I started it last Christmas, but I didn't finish it until today. I doubt the quality of this fic justifies that great stretch of time, but I still think it's pretty nice. The title comes from "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
Warnings: There are references to Judge Turpin's emotional abuse of Johanna, as well as an extremely oblique one to his rape of Lucy, but otherwise there's nothing very specific, just a general sense of grief and fear for the future—you know, all Christmas-like—so watch out for that. Also, Christianity is involved a little bit, by which I mean one character does some things like attend church and there's a sort of communion theme. I don't want anybody to feel like I'm foisting religion on them, though.
Disclaimer: I don't own Sweeney Todd.
Met in Thee Tonight
For nearly sixty years, Samuel Barker had attended the Christmas Eve service at St. Nicholas. He had enjoyed it ever since childhood, but each winter saw him looking forward to it more and more. Perhaps this was because each winter found him lonelier and lonelier. Twenty years before, his only child had left the village for London to seek his fortune. That had not been an entirely sad occasion—all fathers want to see their sons go out in the world and do something for themselves, after all—but, all the same, the house had felt empty without his boy. Then Benjamin had been transported to Australia for life. For Samuel, his son's fate was a sorrow without end, boundless and powerful as the sea. He could be doing anything, reading his Bible or cleaning his teeth, and suddenly he would be overcome by an emotion: grief that he would never see his son again, dismay at the horrors he must be enduring, shame at being the father of a convict (even though he could not believe his boy guilty of theft), or rage at the unfairness of it all and his helplessness to remedy it. These feelings rendered him almost senseless, unable to think of anything but his son. Even after fifteen years, the wound had not healed at all.
Soon afterwards, Benjamin's young wife and baby had disappeared into London's vast, insatiable maw. Samuel could never find out what had become of them; he'd written Lucy several times, only to receive vague, confusing replies from her landlady, who alternately implied Lucy was ill or had run off with some other man. Then his own wife had died some years later. She'd come down with a fever, but he suspected grief and shame had helped her to the grave as well. Finally, the arthritis in his hands had forced him to leave his barber shop to an old apprentice. Now he was lucky if he spoke with somebody besides his lone servant once a week. Whenever he needed companionship, though, he went to St. Nicholas.
It wasn't that he knew many of his fellow parishioners well. Most of his friends either were dead or had pretended not to know him for the past fifteen years, and the number of unfamiliar young faces grew every year. It was just that it did him good to be with people, to sing with them and take communion with them. At least, it was better than spending the evening in his little cottage, with nobody for company except a standoffish cat. Given the choice, he would never have stayed home, but the snow was thick on the ground this year and he had just recovered from a cold. He did not trust himself to take the long walk to church without slipping or getting sick again, and he knew that such things could kill a man of his age.
Would that be such a bad thing? he wondered, as he picked at the stew that his servant had left him for dinner. Perhaps there was a reason that old men were killed so easily; they were not supposed to live as long as they did. They were not supposed to outlive their usefulness or their wives by so many years. They should not survive their children at all. It was perverse, really, for him to prolong his life by giving up one of the few things that he still enjoyed.
He pushed away the thought almost immediately. It was a sin not to care if he lived or died. In fact, it was close to suicide. He resumed eating his stew, although he despaired of ever finishing it. Charlotte had made far too much of it, evidently forgetting that he was only one old man with no appetite worth mentioning. She had also used too much salt, although he was not overly fastidious about such things.
He was just about to cover the rest of the stew and put it aside for Christmas Day when he heard a knock on the door. His heart leapt. He told himself it was probably just Charlotte, come to collect a shawl or glove she'd left behind, but perhaps it was an old friend, one who'd finally decided to speak to him despite what his Benjamin was supposed to have done. He carefully rose from his chair and made his way to the door. When he opened it, though, he found two strangers.
One was a very pretty, very young woman with tightly braided blonde hair, half of which was hidden under a sailor's cap. She wore an unremarkable travelling dress of dark green wool, but her gray overcoat and sturdy boots had clearly been made for a man. Her companion was a tall, thin fellow, almost as young and pretty as she was. His heavy blue sailor's jacket made Samuel think that the cap had once belonged to him. On the whole, he was not sure what to make of them. They weren't shabby enough to be beggars or cheerful enough to be collecting for a Society, but they wanted something. He could tell by the look in their eyes and the set of their mouths. Their faces expressed an emotion caught right between hope and fear.
"Hello," he told them. He wasn't sure what else to say. Ever since he'd given up the shop, he'd lost the habit of talking easily with people other than Charlotte, who rarely spoke herself. "What is it that you want?" he asked. Then, afraid that he sounded too brusque, he added, "May I help you?"
"Yes, sir," the girl said. She spoke like a lady, crisp and cool as the snow in his yard. Her light blue eyes looked at him intently, as though she were trying to assess his character. If he hadn't been so bemused, her expression might've annoyed him. He wasn't the one who'd appeared at her door with no invitation, after all. "Are you Samuel Barker?"
"I am," he replied. "May I ask who you are?"
The girl hesitated, opened her mouth to speak, and closed it again. A long moment passed before the boy elected to fill the silence. He did not speak as aristocratically as the girl, but neither did he have the Cockney or Bristol accent that Samuel had expected from his jacket. He could have been the son of a clerk or lawyer. He also talked rather quickly.
"Mr. Barker, this is Johanna Hope," he said, "but she was Johanna Barker until a few weeks ago, and that's the important part. And I'm Anthony Hope, but that's really not important at all. We're married, you see, so it's very respectable for us to be travelling alone. It's…it's very pleasant to meet you."
Then he blushed and dropped his gaze to his boots. Samuel could see that he was smiling, despite a heroic effort to arrange his features in a more serious expression. He suddenly thought of Benjamin, who had continually gone around with a foolish grin after meeting Lucy, and the wound opened once again. If he was lonely on Christmas Eve, how was his poor boy? He must be starving or bleeding, unless he was already dead. His anguish was so overwhelming that it took him several seconds to realize what he had heard.
"Barker?" he echoed. He thought of the baby he'd only met once, with her round blue eyes and silky yellow curls. She'd looked so much like Lucy that he'd been a little disappointed. He'd hoped that the next one would be a boy, one with Benjamin's dark hair and warm brown eyes. "Johanna?"
"Yes," the girl said, having found her voice again. "I believe I'm your granddaughter, Mr. Barker."
For a moment, Samuel just stared at her snow-maiden face. She could very well have been that tiny blonde baby fifteen years ago. She looked so much like Lucy, despite her eyes and her wan expression. Lucy had appeared genuinely happy nearly all the time, but this girl seemed so melancholy. She was marked, somehow.
It's the mark of Cain, whispered a voice in the back of his head. Everybody in the village knows about your son, Samuel, and they despise you for it. These two could easily be preying on your loneliness for a joke, or perhaps they mean to rob you. Or maybe they just want a place to stay for the night, but they're cruel all the same. What are the chances that your granddaughter survived all the dangers of childhood and London long enough to marry, really?
"Are you alright, Mr. Barker?" the boy asked.
"Yes, yes," he replied, but his voice sounded far away even to himself. The girl's face swam before his eyes. "I'm fine."
"You don't look well, sir," the girl told him. "Let me and Anthony help you to that chair."
"Really, I'm fine," Samuel said. He blinked a few times and his vision cleared. The boy's eyes were wide with concern, and he seemed poised to catch Samuel if he collapsed. The girl had kept her composure for the most part, but her hands were clasped tight in front of her and she was biting her lip. It struck Samuel how young they both looked, how cold and lost and scared. "I think we ought to sit down, though," he found himself saying. "Why don't you come in? I was just finishing dinner, but there's plenty of stew left if you're hungry."
The two exchanged surprised glances. Then the girl took the boy's hand and took a deep breath.
"Thank you," she said. "I know this seems incredible, but I don't think I'm mistaken. I have the daguerreotype of me and my mother, so you can tell me if—"
"Never mind that now," Samuel interrupted. "Come inside and have some tea first, er…"
He wasn't sure whether to call her Johanna or Mrs. Hope, so he trailed off and ushered his visitors inside. He took their coats and hats, hung them on the pegs near the door, and herded them to his little kitchen table, where he bade them sit down.
"You would like some stew, wouldn't you?" he asked. He meant to give the impression that he'd be offended if they refused. After all, he didn't want them to go hungry out of politeness.
"Well…" the boy started.
"Yes, thank you," the girl said firmly at the same time.
"I'll get the bowls," Samuel said. He went to the cupboard across the room and began rummaging through the dishes. "Now, where are you two from?"
It was a somewhat disingenuous question. If the girl was actually Benjamin's child, she most likely came from London. Still, he didn't want to make it easier for them if they were lying. He felt sure now that they meant him no harm, and he couldn't find it in his heart to hate them for their deception if they were trying to find shelter, but he didn't like being fooled. If they were deceiving him, he wanted to catch them in their lie as soon as possible.
"We just came from London," the girl told him. "I grew up there, but Anthony's from Plymouth."
"That's not really important, though," the boy put in, looking embarrassed. "You want to know about Johanna, not me, I'm sure."
Samuel found two bowls and two forks. He brought them to the table and began ladling stew into the bowls.
"I'm not completely uninterested in your background, Mr. Hope," he said, "but I'll admit I'm more curious about the woman who might be my granddaughter. No disrespect meant, of course." He placed a bowl of stew in front of the girl and smiled at her in what he hoped was a friendly manner. "Who raised you there, um…should I call you Mrs. Hope? I've never been in this situation before, you see, and I'm not sure how to address you."
"I think Mrs. Hope would be best," the girl agreed, but she had gone even paler than usual. He wondered if he'd made a mistake. "And I was raised by my…by the judge. Judge Turpin. He took me in after my mother died. That was after my father was transported to Australia for life. I was a year old at the time, so I don't remember either of my parents."
Samuel nodded and slid another bowl of soup towards the boy. The girl's story fit with what he knew about Benjamin's fate. He wasn't sure he'd ever heard of Judge Turpin, but, then again, he'd had no idea what had become of his granddaughter after the transportation. Besides, the girl obviously found it distressing to speak of her family. Either she was a very good actress or she was telling the truth. Another wave of grief hit him as he realized that Lucy might be dead. He'd suspected as much, but the revelation was still painful.
"I am sorry for that," he told her, sitting down. "Do you know anything else about them?"
"My guardian told me that my father was a thief," she said frankly. "He also said my father was a vicious brute. But we talked to some of my father's old neighbors after the wedding, Anthony and I, and most of them said he was a good, honest man. My guardian might have been somewhat…prejudiced on that subject." She bit her lip and offered him a sad little smile.
"He was the sweetest of boys and I never thought him guilty." The words fell from his mouth without a thought. Embarrassed, he cleared his throat and blinked his eyes. "I believe we're out of tea," he said. "I'll go make some."
"I'll do it," the boy offered. He jumped from his chair as though it were on fire. "Where you keep the leaves?"
"You can make tea?" the girl asked. She was still pale, but now she was smiling at her ostensible husband. "I thought I was lucky when I learned you could darn socks."
"Of course I can make tea," the boy said, grinning. "I used to live alone before I knew you. Anyway, it's just boiling water and putting things into it, isn't it?"
"It is," Samuel confirmed. He found himself suppressing a smile and discreetly wiping his eyes with his shirt sleeve at the same time. It felt odd. "Oh, and look on the middle shelf, Mr. Hope. They're in the canister marked 'tea.'" He turned to the girl again. "Now, what do you know about your mother?"
"My guardian said that she was beautiful and kind, but…" The girl hesitated. "He also said that she was a…a fallen woman. That she was weak, and that I must be very careful or I would end up just like her. He told me she died of consumption, but when we talked to the neighbors, they either said she'd…committed suicide or, well, sunk into further degradation, if you understand what I mean. They gave the impression that she hadn't so much fallen as been pushed. By my guardian, you see. I think he was even more prejudiced when it came to my mother."
"Bastard," the boy muttered from the stove. This was shortly followed by a thud and a bang. Samuel looked in his direction and the boy looked sheepish. "Sorry," he said. "I put down the canister too hard. And I used foul language in your home. Again, I'm very sorry."
"That's quite alright, Mr. Hope," Samuel said. "I think I understand." He saw that the girl was staring blankly at her stew and trembling a little, so he placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. He wasn't sure whether one did that with distraught granddaughters, but he only knew about distraught sons. Benjamin with a broken arm, Benjamin afraid of the neighbor's dog, Benjamin frustrated because sums didn't come easily to him in school, Benjamin worried about Lucy and the baby that hadn't come yet. Besides, she didn't seem to mind. "Your mother was beautiful and sweet, my dear. That much is true. She also loved your father devotedly. I think that she must have been pushed."
Too late, he realized he'd all but acknowledged the girl as his granddaughter. He also realized that he didn't much care. Perhaps she was making up their connection, but he doubted it. She clearly believed she was telling the truth. It was possible that she was Benjamin's child and, even if she wasn't, he wanted her and her strange young man to stay with him. They needed him in some way. If he was honest with himself, he needed them, too.
"Thank you," the girl—Johanna— said, lifting her eyes from the bowl. They were shining with tears, but she wasn't shaking anymore. "Anthony and I couldn't find her, neither dead nor alive, but the neighbors were able to tell us where my parents were from, so we came to Maidstone. We asked at the inn whether there were any Barkers or Harlowes living here and they sent us to you."
"I'm happy they did, too," he said. He registered that she knew Lucy's maiden name, but it didn't matter much to him. She smiled. The boy—Anthony—came to sit with them and took her hand. For a few minutes, they all sat there and ate their stew, listening to the kettle boil.
"We didn't know where else to go," Anthony finally said. He was staring at the meat speared on his fork like he'd never seen such a thing before. "We don't know what to do. I thought everything would be fine after we got married. Then I thought everything would be fine once we left London. Johanna knew it wouldn't be like that, because she's smart. But she doesn't know what to do, either. Things happened in London and we can't be the same and we just don't know what to do."
"We're afraid," added Johanna. Anthony nodded. "It's all over now, but we're still afraid."
They looked at him the way they had at the door, half-hoping he'd tell them there was no reason to be scared and half-believing he'd confirm all their fears. Benjamin afraid of the dark, Benjamin afraid of catching scarlet fever like his cousin who died of it. He didn't know what to tell them, so he put one hand on Johanna's shoulder and the other on Anthony's arm. He was suddenly glad his table was so small.
"I know," he said. "I know. But we'll see what we can do."
Author's Note: Have a Merry Christmas! Or, if you don't celebrate Christmas, I hope you have a good regular day on December 25! Actually, I hope everybody has a good day every single day of the year, because why the fuck not?
Oh, and I specifically got the title from these lyrics:
"O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight."