Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.
Chapter Nine: Letting Go
"There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves
into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it's all over." - Gloria Naylor / Octavia Butler
Later that evening while supper cooked, Merope sat trying to read in her father's armchair. She found herself reading the same sentence over and over before deciding to give up and put the book aside. She rose and walked over to the window. The frigid November rain had become wet snow, and she watched the heavy flakes plummet to the ground with an ache in her heart. What made me talk to Bethe like that? she berated herself. How could I have shown so little gratitude to her?
Since the argument that afternoon, she had gone home filled with regret. Reassuring herself that she'd done the right thing, telling herself that Bethe was determined not to be happy for her, had not comforted Merope. She'd never spoken to anyone that way before; cheek would have earned her a hard lesson from Marvolo. Resting her elbows on the windowsill, she put her head in her hands and squeezed the salty hot tears from her eyes. Bethe, her friend, her sister...
The door swung open behind her and she turned to see Tom, his dark coat and hat speckled with white, a satisfied grin on his face. "Good news, darling," he announced, closing the door behind him.
"What is it, Tom?"
"My engagement to Cecilia is over and done. I'm a free man!" Tom beamed. "That is, unless you agree to marry me. I'd gladly be your slave forever. Will you, Merope?"
She ran into his arms and hugged him with all her strength, ignoring the wet snow that soaked through her dress and stung her skin. "Oh, Tom, thank God," she murmured, "thank God everything has come right. I thought -"
"What?" He lifted her face and gently wiped the tears away with his thumb. "You thought I wouldn't ask you?"
Merope tried to laugh. "I - I told Bethe that you would. I knew you would."
Tom frowned. "Bethe? Your friend from the village?" he asked. "She didn't think I'd ask you?"
"I'm sure she did, my love, I'm sure she did -" she hastened to reassure him, but he began to look angry.
"She thought I'd marry Cecilia and continue to see you? She thought I wasn't serious about you, Merope?" He pulled away and carelessly flung his coat over the armchair. He walked slowly over to the window and gazed outside, though it was now so dark that only his reflection could be seen.
Merope hurried to his side. "Are you angry with me, Tom?"
Tom pulled her close, giving her a hard kiss on the forehead. "Not with you, darling," he responded, "but with that friend of yours." He said the word friend as one would say the word snake. "Promise me you'll never see her again."
"Tom - I -"
His tone was light, but his arm tightened like a vise. "Promise me, sweetheart."
"I - I promise you."
"What do you promise me?"
"I promise I'll never see her again," Merope whispered, with a feeling like a knife in her gut. Forgive me, Bethe, I've made my choice...
Tom put his other arm around her and hugged her tightly. "That's my good girl," he said approvingly. "We won't have anyone who wants to keep us apart, will we?" She shook her head and he smiled lovingly. "There's nothing but joy for us from now on, Merope. You'll never know fear or hunger or sadness again. I'll take good care of you. We'll have our own home. You'll grow fat and contented and give orders to an army of servants..."
Merope laughed despite herself. "Tom -"
"...we'll have nine children..."
He grinned. "I have something to give you," he said, and pulled from his pocket the most beautiful ring she had ever seen. A huge diamond sparkled in the center of a slim gold band and when he slipped it onto her thin hand, she gasped at its weight. "Aren't you going to thank me, Mrs. Riddle?" demanded Tom, pretending to frown at her.
She laughed at the sheer folly of it all and threw her arms around him, melding her lips with his.
* * *
A few days later, Tom stood in the entrance hall of Riddle Manor, straightening his cravat before the mirror. He caught sight of his own face, young and pale and nervous. "Steady on, old boy," he murmured. "You're not going to your death, after all." He straightened his shoulders, lifted his chin, and walked confidently into the parlor.
This room was the especial property of his mother and had been designed accordingly. Bright floral silks covered both chaise and sofa, perfectly matching the rose-colored walls, drapes, and carpet. Mary Riddle was sitting by the window, where the morning sunlight made the most of her blond hair and elegant features. The folds of her dress fluttered gracefully to the floor and when she looked up at her son's entrance, the pearls in her ears swayed lightly.
Tom felt a great rush of affection for her, this pretty mother who'd always given him everything he desired. One day, he hoped to see Merope as elegant and lovely, smiling indulgently at her own children.
"Good morning, Mother." He turned to see Thomas Riddle standing by the fire, looking out of place in this utopia of roses and chiffon. "Good morning, Father." Apparently they'd been talking to each other instead of enjoying the usual stiff silence; Tom could sense it from the awkward politeness between them.
There was an unusual amount of tension in Mrs. Riddle's face. "Your father and I are puzzled as to why you've called this - family meeting, as you put it. Is anything wrong?" The way in which she asked the question implied that she knew something was wrong.
"Nothing's wrong," he said, unable to keep from smiling. "Everything is perfectly right. Mother, Father ... I've fallen in love."
Mr. Riddle raised his eyebrows and rocked back and forth on his heels. "Is that so? Well then, very good. Carry on, Tom," he said approvingly, and made as if to leave. His wife threw a warning glance in his direction. "Well, what do you expect me to say? The boy has fallen in love with his fiancee not a fortnight before the wedding. Jolly good, isn't it?"
"Yes, jolly good," his wife replied sarcastically, "especially when said fiancee flew from the house yesterday without so much as a by-your-leave."
This piece of news took Mr. Riddle by surprise. "What? What happened?"
"I think our son is trying to explain, if you'll only give him a chance," she said coldly.
Tom cleared his throat. Better to get this over with quickly, he thought. "The truth is that Cecilia and I have mutually ended our engagement. We decided that we weren't right for each other, and that we cared for other people." There, that wasn't so difficult.
"Other people?" Mrs. Riddle echoed. "Tom, we've been planning this wedding for months. Your father and I held an engagement party for you in August! We sent out invitations! Everyone is coming -"
"I know all of that, I do!" he said quickly. "But my own happiness comes first, and happiness lies with my darling Merope -"
"Merope?" repeated Mr. Riddle. "What an odd name." He stared at their son as realization struck. "Good God, Tom, how should I behave to Charles Ingram? We've been friends for so long, ever since cricket at school. His daughter and my son... What shall we do?"
"I'm sorry to hurt your friendship in any way," Tom stated, "but my mind is made up. I love both of you dearly, but I love Merope too and I will have her for my wife."
His mother was silent for some time. "You've always been a headstrong boy, and I see that hasn't changed," she spoke finally. "Tell us about this Merope of yours. Is she a good girl? Has she a respectable family?"
"What does her father do?" demanded Mr. Riddle.
He sits in jail, Tom thought. "She's a wonderful girl, as you'll see for yourself," he said, evading the last two questions. "I've invited her to tea tomorrow." They'll love her, he told himself forcefully. How could they not?
* * *
The last of the boxes was packed and loaded onto the wagon waiting outside the shop. Bethe stepped down from the ladder. "Thank you for helping me with everything," she told the young men gratefully. "I'd be packing all night if it weren't for you two."
Peter Everett tipped his hat courteously. "I'll put your things in our shed." He left the shop and swung himself into the wagon, clucking to the horses.
Adam Shepherd, the baker's nephew, paused before following his friend. "I delivered your message to the Gaunt cottage, Miss," he said bashfully. "I put it under the door."
Bethe raised her eyebrows. "Miss Gaunt wasn't home, Adam?"
"No, Miss. I knocked on the door and nobody answered. It was dark inside."
"Thank you so much," she responded, a little deflated, and when she was alone again she sat down thoughtfully. Since their argument, Bethe had sent two messages and received no reply. Two days ago, she'd come to the Gaunt cottage in person only to find the silence and darkness Adam had just described. She wanted to apologize, to make amends for her lack of confidence in Merope's future. She had rebuked herself over and over for having been so insensitive. I should've kept quiet about everything, she thought regretfully. All these misgivings over a silly dream, and I've lost a dear friend.
Bethe considered the fact that she would probably never see Merope again. The girl had been so angry that Bethe felt sure she wouldn't be forgiven soon, much less be invited to her wedding. And yes, a wedding there would be. It was whispered throughout Little Hangleton that Cecilia Ingram had left with a broken heart, and that Tom Riddle was now to marry another woman. No one knew for sure who the woman was, but it wouldn't be long before the village discovered the truth - that the new bride-to-be was the forlorn girl from Gaunt's Hill.
Sighing, Bethe rose and wrapped herself in a thick woolen shawl. She gave her shop one final glance - how empty it looked with all the shelves stripped and bare! - and went into the snowy street, locking the door behind her. I'll miss this place, she thought sadly, and began walking home through the village.
Although she wouldn't leave for Silvermist Woods until February, Bethe planned to be in Ireland for all of December and January. She'd written to her father's brother, Gerald Trelawney, only to discover that he was long dead. A polite reply had come from his son, Theodore, who seemed very kind and eager to meet her. He lived in Wicklow with his wife and child, and warmly invited Bethe to come and spend Christmas with them.
"I suppose Merope should know I'm leaving," she murmured aloud, walking up the little lane to her home, "though I doubt she'd care just now." Her spirits sank again when she remembered the two unanswered notes. Surely it wouldn't hurt to write one final letter to wish Tom and Merope joy, and to let the girl know that Bethe's friendship would always be hers.
Good luck, my dear, Bethe thought fervently, stamping her feet on the mat. She went inside and shut the door on the cold wintry evening.
* * *
The next day, a black carriage stopped in front of the Gaunt cottage. A footman came to knock at the door. "Good day, Miss. We've come to take you to the house if you're ready."
Merope smiled nervously at him. "Thank you," she returned, pulling a sable cloak around herself. It had been a gift from Tom, along with the dress and leather shoes she wore, and she felt a little awkward in her new finery. Hardly two dresses at a time in my life, and now I wear an outfit more costly than the cottage.
The footman helped her into the carriage and closed the door securely behind her. She barely heard him calling to the driver as she gaped at the interior. Every inch was covered in dark green velvet and a few warm furs were laid neatly across from her. She unfolded one and covered her lap with it, reveling in the novelty of traveling in such ostentatious style. Even the world outside the windows looked different; the trees, the little lane, the place in which she had grown up - all of it seemed changed somehow. Maybe this was how things looked to the rich: small, menial, and unimportant.
Merope pressed her face against the cold glass as they descended the hill and took the road to Riddle Manor. The excitement of riding in such a fine carriage dissolved into anxiety when she saw the gates of the great house opening to receive them.
She had been very reluctant to meet the Riddles since Tom had first suggested it, but there was simply no refusing him. She wondered how he thought his parents would receive her. Surely, after such a beautiful prospective daughter-in-law as Cecilia, they'd laugh and shut the door in her face. And what then? She had no doubt Tom would be on her side, that he'd follow her to the ends of the Earth. But what if his parents disinherited him? What if Tom came to hate her for making him choose?
Her stomach contorted with worry. Just breathe, she told herself, and make Tom proud. There's nothing else I can do.
Tom ran out of the house to help her from the carriage. "Hello, love," he said, kissing her.
"Hello," she returned, forcing a smile.
"Nervous?" he suggested, tucking her arm under his.
"Terrified," replied Merope, and he laughed affectionately.
"Don't be," he said reassuringly, squeezing her hand. "When they see how sweet you are, they'll fall in love with you just as I have."
Merope had her doubts on that subject but chose not to voice them. Instead, she preoccupied herself with admiring the foyer they had just passed through. A feeling of surreality overcame her as she admired the tiles on the floor, the marble busts, and the sweeping staircase ahead. It struck her that one day, all of this might be hers. She could become the mistress of a beautiful house she'd only ever dreamed of entering.
A rosy-cheeked maid who couldn't have been older than Merope gave her a curtsy. "May I take your wrap, Miss?" Her green eyes were round with curiosity and Merope felt sure that the girl would carry back a faithful report to the servants' quarters.
Tom helped Merope out of her cloak and handed it to the maid. "My parents are waiting for us in the drawing-room," he explained, beaming. "Mother usually takes her tea in the parlor, but I think she wanted to impress our guest of honor today." He winked at her as they passed a beautiful room in shades of pink. A ballroom stood on one side of the corridor, opposite a magnificent library. The drawing-room was the last room in the corridor.
Upon entering, Merope thought she understood why Mary Riddle had chosen to meet her in this room. It was intimidating in its splendor and she felt quite overwhelmed by the grave colors and heavy tapestries. An enormous oil painting over the fireplace showed a handsome, elderly couple, looking both proud and stern. It seemed like they were looking at her accusingly and Merope hastily turned away.
"My grandparents," Tom whispered, steering her over to where his parents were seated. "Mother, Father, I'd like you to meet Merope Gaunt, my fiancee."
As Merope curtsied awkwardly, she could feel Mrs. Riddle's cold eyes taking in every inch of her person. Her husband, however, took one look and returned disinterestedly to his coffee cakes. "It's an honor to meet you both," she murmured.
"A pleasure, I'm sure," Mrs. Riddle stated. "Won't you sit down?"
The young couple took the opposite sofa and Merope felt deeply thankful for Tom's comforting presence. How else could she hope to maintain her composure under Mary Riddle's chilly gaze and the Squire's complete disregard?
"So, Merope," continued Tom's mother, emphasizing every syllable in the name, "Tom tells us that you live close by. Has your family a house in the adjacent village?"
"I - I live here, ma'am," Merope faltered, "in Little Hangleton."
Mrs. Riddle's hand paused over the tea service. "Indeed? I've never seen you before, nor have I heard your name. Gaunt, was it?"
Her husband spoke up. "That reminds me. Tom m'boy, there's a peasant that lives on the hill opposite ours. The villagers call it Gaunt's Hill, do they not?"
"Yes, Father. That's Merope's home," said Tom, handing Merope a strawberry crumpet. She let it sit uneaten in her lap, afraid that her hands would shake and betray her.
Mrs. Riddle's thin eyebrows arched. "Indeed?" she said again, looking a trifle shocked.
"Yes. Merope and I first met there," Tom rambled on, "on one of my many rides past the cottage. It's lovely up there in the summer, Mother. You should see it."
His mother smiled stiffly. "How nice. And what do you do up there, Merope?"
Merope looked helplessly at Tom, who gave her a nod of encouragement. "Do, Mrs. Riddle?"
"What do you enjoy in your spare time?" his mother elaborated, speaking in a tone reserved for the very stupid. "What are your hobbies and pursuits? Do you ride? Paint? Play the piano? There must be something to do up there."
"Merope's very well-read, Mother," Tom interrupted, coming to her rescue. "Aren't you, darling? She reads all sorts of literature and poetry."
"Let her answer for herself, Tom. She has a tongue of her own," Mrs. Riddle replied, turning back to Merope. "What does your father do, child? Have you siblings?"
A familiar sick sensation came over Merope and her hands began to get damp and clammy. She almost felt as though her father had come home, that it was he and not Mrs. Riddle who was interrogating her. Just answer the question, Merope, she told herself. "I have one older brother," she heard herself say, and found herself clutching the locket for comfort. Why, oh why won't you help me now? she pleaded silently, but there was no answer.
"And your parents? Surely you have those?" the woman prompted with a short, harsh laugh. "What does your father do?"
"Mother," Tom said sternly, frowning at her and looking sideways at Merope. He was beginning to realize that the interview wouldn't be as promising as he'd hoped.
Mr. Riddle glanced at his wife. "I already told you Gaunt was a peasant, did I not?" he asked, confused. "Bloody useless lump with a mad son. Isn't that correct, Tom?"
The air was thick with tension and when Merope spoke, her words struggled through the stifling silence. "My father's a peasant, my brother's mad, and my mother's dead," she whispered, trembling as she rose from the sofa. She needed to get out of this house, to get away from these people. "Excuse me." Her feet were carrying her away and she was running, actually running out of the room. As she passed the portrait of Tom's grandparents, she fancied that their expressions had changed to shock. No soul, not even Tom as a child, had dared run in this room. Merope heard Tom calling her but his voice sounded so far away.
She had nearly reached the corridor when she felt Tom's arms go round her. "Darling," he murmured soothingly, "come with me, you need to sit down." He turned to look over his shoulder at his parents and snapped, "I'll return shortly." He took her to the library and helped her into a large armchair. A pitcher of lukewarm water sat nearby and he poured her a glass. "Drink this, sweetheart. I'm so sorry, Merope," he said, kissing her forehead. "I truly thought they'd behave better."
Away from the smothering drawing-room, Merope already felt better. She looked anxiously up at Tom, whose tight lips and furrowed brow displayed a furious anger that she would later come to recognize. "Tom -"
He kissed her hand fiercely. "You'll be all right in here?" he asked. "I need to have a word with them." He strode briskly out of the room. Merope heard the thud of the drawing-room door violently hitting its frame and guessed that he'd thrown it closed behind him. Apparently it had bounced back and stood ajar, because she could hear almost every word that passed between them.
"What the bloody hell was that all about?" he was asking in a low voice that shook with anger. Mrs. Riddle murmured an inaudible reply and Merope heard Tom laugh scornfully. "I'll speak to you however I please, Mother. Don't make me ask the question again."
"Now, Tom -" began Mr. Riddle.
"I bring to you my fiancee, the woman I love, the woman I will marry," Tom spat, "and you treat her like the dirt beneath your shoe. You ask her impertinent, offensive questions -"
Mrs. Riddle's high voice pierced the air and Merope could now hear her words. "How is it impertinent or offensive to inquire after someone's family?"
"Very well. You ask her questions in an impertinent, offensive manner," her son corrected himself scathingly.
"Tom, she's a peasant, for God's sake!" Mr. Riddle was speaking now. "I told you that her father -"
"I don't care about her father! I love her, and her family has nothing to do with it!"
"This love came on very suddenly!"
Tom's voice got even louder. "And what's that supposed to mean, Mother?"
"I mean that we never even heard about this girl until now! You were still in love with Cecilia not two weeks ago and now this girl has ... has bewitched you! She has ensnared you somehow..."
"Listen to yourself! What utter poppycock, Mother," Tom said disgustedly. "I fell in love with her, I will marry her, and that is all."
Despite the distressing situation, Merope found herself smiling faintly. How loving, how loyal Tom's words were ... She nearly missed Mrs. Riddle's next words, spoken in a low, intense voice.
"If she's pregnant, Tom," she was saying, "we'll get rid of her. We'll send her off into the country somewhere, pay her to keep quiet - it will all be taken care of, son. But for heaven's sake -"
Merope heard the loud smashing of china and Mrs. Riddle's piercing shriek. Then there were footsteps and Tom was hurrying into the library, his handsome face twisted with fury. "Let's get out of here," he said, pulling her into the corridor. Merope glanced over her shoulder. The Riddles and half a dozen servants were staring after them, open-mouthed. Mrs. Riddle was crying brokenly and her husband, looking bewildered, was patting her awkwardly on the shoulder.
"Tom!" his mother was calling. "My son, my only son -"
A wave of guilt washed over Merope and she tried to disengage herself from Tom's grasp. Mrs. Riddle was a cruel, insensitive woman, but it was clear that she loved her boy dearly. "Tom, I -"
"I'm no longer their son," Tom stated coldly, striding over to the cloakroom and pulling out her wrap. "If they refuse to acknowledge you as my fiancee and to treat you with respect, I won't be a part of their family." He steered her out of the house. The carriage was still in the courtyard and the driver looked at them, perplexed. "Take us back to the Gaunt cottage," Tom commanded, getting inside after Merope.
"What are we going to do, Tom?" Merope asked helplessly. She felt weak and unbalanced. Somehow everything had begun to spin out of control, out of focus.
Beside her, Tom's perfect features were an icy mask. He turned to look at her. "We are going to elope."