Chapter 2 : The Beginning
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"Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born."
- Anais Nin
"Here it is!" Bethe Lawney located a tiny bottle on her crowded shelves and turned to her customer with a triumphant smile. "Essence of woolseed and echinacea, guaranteed to cure boils within three days of use."
The young woman on the other side of the counter gazed doubtfully at the label. "Just three days?" she repeated.
"Three days," confirmed Bethe. "Take one drop with each meal. If you're at all unsatisfied, Kate, come straight back for a full refund," she added kindly.
The other woman’s face broke into a smile. "I should know better than to doubt you, Bethe," she said apologetically, dropping her money on the counter. "My neighbor has been going to you for years, and Grandmama even prefers you to Dr. Hamlin."
"That’s very kind of her." Bethe beamed. One of the reasons she loved owning the shop was because of the incredible support from her customers. Some of them, like Kate Henry’s neighbor and grandmother, had been buying their tonics and potions from her shop since it opened a decade before.
After Kate had gone, Bethe began tidying the shelves and dusting off the counters, preparing to close shop for the day. She slipped her basket over one arm and stepped out onto the cobblestone street, locking the door securely behind her. "Until tomorrow," she murmured, looking affectionately at the handpainted sign that read Lawney Medicine Shoppe.
It was a mild evening and the little tree-lined street was filled with people taking the air. As Bethe made her way to the main road, nodding and smiling at familiar faces as they passed, she was greeted by two old women sitting on a bench in front of the bakery. She made a point to stop and chat, having long learned that the only way to avoid being in the village gossip was to befriend the gossipers.
"Hello, Mrs. Shepherd, Mrs. Johnson," she greeted them cheerfully. "How are you this evening?"
Mrs. Shepherd, a fat, rosy-cheeked woman with a personality to match, smiled up at her benevolently. "Much better, dear, after that lavender ointment you gave me. I'm happy to say my nerves are no longer bothering me."
"I’m content myself, seeing as my niece has finally got engaged," spoke up Mrs. Johnson, thin and sharp-eyed, whose mission in life was to pair up everyone around her. One quick glance took in Bethe’s shining black hair and slim figure. "You're looking well, Bethe," she remarked. "I still don’t understand why you'd rather run a shop instead of finding a nice husband. Thirty-two is not too old to marry, you know."
Bethe laughed, amused rather than offended. "You sound like my mother, Mrs. Johnson," she exclaimed.
"Well your mother is a wise woman," Mrs. Johnson was saying tartly. Even as she spoke to Bethe, her keen gray eyes were roaming up and down the street, noticing everything and everyone. "Speaking of settling down," she said in a hushed voice, "it looks as though Alice Everett has finally caught the blacksmith’s boy." She watched a young couple standing a few yards away, holding hands and talking.
"Her parents will be happy, they’ve been pushing for the match for ages," said Mrs. Shepherd complacently. "And did you know that Eva Porter and Amos Fern moved up the date of their wedding?"
Mrs. Johnson raised her eyebrows. "That could only mean one thing." The two women looked at each other significantly. Bethe cleared her throat, preparing to make an excuse to leave, when Mrs. Johnson added, "And of course we musn't forget the most important engagement of the summer. The Squire’s son is to be married this November, Bethe, did you know?"
Bethe raised her eyebrows with polite interest. "Oh?" She adjusted her basket pointedly, hoping they would realize she had herbs to collect and hadn't the inclination to hear more gossip.
"Why, yes," Mrs. Shepherd chimed in, "that beautiful girl has accepted young Master Riddle. Lord bless me, I can’t remember her name — Miss Ingle or something —"
"Miss Ingram, dear, Cecilia Ingram," her friend corrected her. "Her father grew up with the Squire. I suppose that’s how their children met. Handsome young couple, but proud and conceited like the rest of their kin. I daresay they’re a fine match for one another."
Like all the villagers, Bethe only saw the Riddles when they descended from their hilltop manor to attend church on Sundays. They seemed like rather unpleasant people. Mr. Riddle was a rotund, bulging-eyed glutton of a man, and what good looks he'd had in youth were long gone. Mary Riddle was a pretty woman with an ice-cold demeanor. Haughty and disdainful, she rushed to and from her carriage each Sunday so as not to mingle with the commoners longer than necessary. As for their son Tom, he had been the cause of many a fluttering heartbeat since his fifteenth birthday, but looked at no one with more than contempt and condescension. His rudeness had, if anything, increased now that he was twenty-two.
"How interesting," Bethe remarked politely, though she felt she couldn't care less about the ill-mannered Riddles, "and now, I really must be going, ladies. I have some heartsease and a little nightshade I need to collect -"
"Nightshade?" Mrs. Johnson repeated. "You'll be going by that tramp's cottage then, that hill's the only place where it grows." She gestured toward Bethe's basket. "You've brought a weapon, I hope?"
Mrs. Shepherd gasped. "Amelia! Really, what a thing to say!"
"Oh come now, Lucy! Everyone knows Gaunt is off his rocker," said Mrs. Johnson impatiently. "And that psychotic son of his, playing with snakes and making snake noises. Completely barmy, the lot of them. Who knows what they could do to an innocent girl?"
"Now, now, there’s no need to worry," Bethe interrupted, before the argument could escalate. "I promise to be very careful. Besides, the nightshade grows on the eastern side of the hill, well away from Mr. Gaunt's cottage. He'll have no reason to accuse me for trespassing." She said goodbye and continued on her way through the village with relief. It took only five minutes to reach the main road that led up through Gaunt's Hill and eventually out of Little Hangleton. As she walked Bethe found herself wondering about the strange man and his even stranger family.
The Gaunts, like the Riddle family, were elusive and very rarely descended from their hill. Mr. Gaunt seemed to be quite the alcoholic, visiting the Hanged Man each month for a supply of whiskey bottles. Oh, the stories the villagers had to tell when Marvolo Gaunt came to their pub! Bethe pictured his bloodshot eyes and withered, apelike face. She wondered what misery lay in the past that so desperately had to be forgotten with drink and anger. Her heart ached with sympathy for his daughter. At least the son looked like he could handle him - though it seemed unlikely Gaunt would ever turn his anger against the favored child.
That poor girl can't be more than seventeen or eighteen, Bethe guessed. Girls at that age particularly needed love and care, which Gaunt's daughter certainly did not have. In the years that Bethe had lived in the village, she had never once seen an overture of friendship made to the Gaunts. That would explain why they're reclusive, she thought wryly, if every time they come to town, people jeer and glare and whisper.
She had reached the crest of the hill. Making her way off the path, she easily found a patch of nightshade growing in the shadow of a large oak. She slipped on some light gloves and began collecting a few of the branches and berries. Somewhere in the tree above her, a twig snapped. Bethe's head shot up, instantly alert. "Who's up there?" There was no answer. She stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "I know you're there. Do not make me climb this tree and pull you out by your ear."
A bare foot emerged from among the leaves and branches, and finally the hem of a gray cotton dress. A girl jumped down and stood in front of Bethe, sheepishly avoiding her eyes. It was none other than Gaunt's daughter.
"Why hello," Bethe said pleasantly, determined to show her that one person on Earth was friendly. "How do you do?"
"Hello," the girl mumbled, hanging her head. "I'm sorry I startled you." She was almost a head taller than Bethe but her slumped posture made her look much shorter.
"Oh, that's quite all right!" Bethe smiled at her. "I like climbing trees too, although I haven't done it in some time. I'm just here to pick some nightshade."
The girl finally looked up and Bethe thought that she had never seen a sadder person in her life. Her face was caked with dirt and a few telltale trails led down her cheeks. Her eyes were a murky brown and a bit swollen as though from frequent crying, but it was the expression in them that struck Bethe. These were the eyes of a completely miserable soul. "It's poisonous, you know," the girl was muttering.
"What? Oh, the nightshade. Yes, I know," Bethe replied cheerfully, stooping to collect some more berries. "Nightshade is a powerful poison but ironically, if you know how to use it, it can also be an antidote."
"Really?" The girl wiped her face with one threadbare sleeve. What Bethe had originally thought to be a gray cotton dress appeared up close to be a cloth sack, sewn awkwardly to create a baggy shift. My God, the child doesn't even have clothing, she thought with a stab of pity.
"Really," Bethe continued, sensing her interest. "It's also given to newborn babies. Ella Henry down in the village just had a baby boy." She neatly wrapped the berries and the leaves in separate handkerchiefs. "He slept normally and ate normally, but just kept crying and crying. I thought it might be colic and made up a little solution of this for Ella to give him. Now he's happy as can be."
The girl stood a little closer. "What's colic?"
"Nobody knows for certain," Bethe explained, "but I think it's something like a stomach upset in adults. Although I don't recommend nightshade for that." She sat back on her heels thoughtfully. "A little chamomile tea or some knotgrass tonic would do the trick."
"You know so much about medicine," remarked the girl shyly, looking awed.
Bethe smiled kindly at her. "Years of long practice, that's all. Spend as much time exploring the meadows and reading about herblore as I do, and you will too."
The girl's face fell. "I can't read much. I never really learned how."
"Why then, I'll teach you if you like," Bethe exclaimed.
The poor girl shrank back as though in fear. "I can't. Father doesn't like me to read."
Bethe gazed thoughtfully at her. "I see. But the question is, do you want to learn?"
There was a moment's hesitation. "Yes ... I think."
"Well all right. I have an idea. How often does your father go into the village, and how long does he stay there?"
"On the first of each month," replied the girl, "to the - the pub." She blushed. "He's usually gone for two hours or so."
Bethe nodded. "The first of July is in two days, so we can have our lesson then. But I think it best if we meet every two weeks."
"But Father only leaves the house once a month," the girl pointed out, puzzled.
"Then make certain he needs to leave every two weeks," Bethe said with a smile. "You can figure that out. Shall we meet here around the same time?"
A tentative smile touched the corners of the girl's mouth, and she nodded. "I'll try."
Bethe smiled back encouragingly and stood up, slipping the basket back over her arm. She extended one hand. "I'm Bethe Lawney."
The girl took her hand shyly. "Merope Gaunt."
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