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Chapter 10 : A Dream Fulfilled
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"Love is night jasmine, a diamond in darkness...
It is the most common of miracles, fashioned of fleecy clouds -
a handful of stars tossed into the night sky."
- Jim Bishop
The night was clear and cold and the moon shone too brightly for Tom's taste. He peered up at it from the carriage window, wondering if it would betray them tonight. His fears were unfounded, however, for when they pulled up in front of Riddle Manor, the house was a great silent shadow. The footman opened the door for him and he stepped out with a slight shiver, whether from cold or from anticipation, he couldn't tell.
"I've already informed Henry that you would come, sir," whispered the footman. "He has packed your things and will be waiting in the vestibule." As if on cue, the front entrance opened and Tom's valet peered out. He nodded at them to assure them that all the household were abed, and began handing out parcels and bundles of luggage.
"Good work, Henry," Tom told him quietly. "Have you the papers?"
"In my pocket this minute, sir," answered the valet. "I also have your passport, and we'll add everyone else when we reach Southampton."
Tom raised an eyebrow. "Everyone else?"
"Aside from your lady, just Gretchen and myself, sir." Henry looked at him sternly. "I won't hear of you traveling without assistance. We'll take the smaller carriage and follow you to Great Hangleton. Both vehicles will be returned to your parents once we board the train."
There seemed to be no arguing with the addition to their party, but Tom was inwardly grateful that he and Merope would be taken care of.
A young woman came out and closed the door behind her. Her freckled face glowed with excitement as she curtsied. "Master Tom."
"Henry has told you the details?" Tom inquired, and she nodded. "You are not to speak of our situation to anyone. You are to be a lady's maid to my wife and answer to all of her wishes."
"I'll do my best, sir," she said respectfully.
When all of the packages had been secured, Tom resumed his seat in the larger carriage and ordered the driver to return to the Gaunt cottage. Merope had begged for a few moments alone to gather her few belongings and to write a short letter to her father, should he return to find her gone. Tom hadn't been in the least inclined to explain anything to the lunatic, but Merope had been so determined that he couldn't refuse. Even after all this time, she was still afraid of Marvolo Gaunt. If he comes near her again, I'll kill him, Tom vowed, his blood boiling at the thought of anyone harming her.
Merope was already waiting outside when the carriage arrived, a worn carpetbag in her hand. When Tom jumped down to help her, she looked questioningly at the second carriage. "My valet Henry and a maid," he explained, smiling. "Your maid, to be precise."
She looked at him with wonder. "What will I do with a maid?" she asked innocently and he laughed and gave her a big hug.
"Are you all right? Having second thoughts?"
"Never." She turned to look back at the cottage, her eyes roaming over each cracked window and rotted board. "I just can't believe my wishes are coming true. I've always dreamed that I would leave this place, and now I leave it ... with you." She kissed his neck softly and took his hand. "We should go."
They got into the carriage and sat with their arms around each other in the darkness. "We'll go to Great Hangleton and be married immediately," Tom told her. "When morning comes, you'll be my wife. How does that suit you, Merope Riddle?"
"Merope Riddle," she echoed, feeling the words linger in the air as do all private dreams which are spoken aloud.
The afternoon sun was shining brightly and Bethe considered it a good omen for her journey. Everything had gone smoothly that morning. Her cottage had been shut up securely, her belongings stored by obliging neighbors, and Dr. Hamlin had kindly offered to take her to Great Hangleton Station in his fancy red Crossley. Bethe had never been in a motorcar before and had enjoyed the ride immensely.
"Much better than a stuffy carriage, isn't it?" the doctor had said complacently. "I know what everyone says about my car, but I don't care in the least. King Riddle nearly had kittens when I brought it home from London, but I do as I please." Bethe had chuckled along with him, ignoring the familiar twinge at the mention of the Riddles.
From Great Hangleton Station, she'd taken the train to Liverpool and arrived at port by late morning. Her paperwork completed and her luggage taken in hand, Bethe had nothing else to do but wait to board the ship to Wicklow. There were several other passengers standing on the dock with her: a man reading the newspaper with a furrowed brow, an elderly woman chatting gaily to her granddaughter, and a harassed-looking mother chasing twin boys who were racing up and down the dock.
Bethe's eye was drawn to a group of three people sitting on a bench nearby. One of the women was searching for a handkerchief and her husband handed her one of his own. "There you are, my sweet," Bethe heard him say tenderly, and she kissed him gratefully. Their female companion seemed quite fed up with this display and stood up abruptly.
"Where are you off to, Rose? They'll be boarding us soon," the gentleman called to her.
"I won't go far, Uncle. I just feel so restless sitting all the time," she said. When she turned, Bethe saw that she was very young - probably in her late teens - and very familiar. She wore a simple dove-gray dress, her bright hair tucked under an enormous hat. She paced to and from the edge of the dock, sometimes looking out at sea, sometimes rolling her gloves into a wrinkled ball. The third time she turned back from the dock, their eyes met and she paused. Bethe gave a start of surprise; it was none other than Rose Ingram, Cecilia's younger sister.
She took the opportunity to approach with a friendly smile. "I think we've met before. My name is Bethe -"
"The apothecary in Little Hangleton. Of course," Rose returned. "How do you do?"
"Very well. And you, Miss Ingram?"
"Just Rose, if you please, and I'm rather eager to leave," the girl answered with a mirthless laugh. "At least I'll have my own cabin on the ship and may see as little of them as I like." She gestured to the couple sitting on the bench. "Married twenty years and still shameful as newlyweds. It's appalling."
Bethe hid a smile. "Are you off to Ireland for the holidays, then?"
"Just the three of us - Uncle George, Aunt Hetta, and myself. My parents don't fancy traveling, and my sister is ... indisposed at the moment," Rose returned, her lips set in a grim line. She looked sideways at Bethe. "You met her fiance that day in the shop. I suppose you've heard he's jilted her?"
"Of course you have. How could you help it?" Rose continued without waiting for an answer. "And now it's begun all over again ... are we never to have a moment's peace?"
"The gossip will die down eventually," Bethe said, misunderstanding.
Rose waved her hand impatiently. "I'm not talking about that. I mean she's gotten herself engaged again." The bitterness in her voice was unmistakable. "So much for that love potion and all her pretenses of concern for me..."
Bethe stared at her. "I beg your pardon?"
The girl sighed. "Don't mind me. Mother always says I talk too much for my own good."
"No, please continue," Bethe said urgently. "What was that about a love potion? The one she bought in my shop that day?"
"Yes, and a useless one at that. No offense meant," Rose added quickly, "but all it did was make John seem drunk as a lord. How embarrassing!"
"John!" Bethe repeated. "Who's John? I thought Cecilia bought the potion for Tom!"
Rose frowned. "Of course not! Why would Cecilia, of all people, need a love potion? No. She knew I cared for John Havering and offered to buy it. It was a lark, really, a gesture of affection for me. Apparently an empty gesture, since they're now to be wed..." She continued chattering on, but Bethe hardly heard a word.
I told Merope that she was buying it for Tom Riddle, she thought, remembering Merope's intent look. "A love potion?" she had asked. "For Tom? But he would want her ... it would work."
"Are you all right?" Rose broke off. "You look pale."
"I'm fine," Bethe murmured, feeling slightly faint. "Please, go back to your aunt and uncle. Don't worry about me."
Rose hesitated. "We'll see you on board?" she asked hopefully. "You'll join us for dinner?"
"Yes, yes, anything," said Bethe, barely noticing when Rose left her. The faintness was subsiding somewhat, but in its place was a strange numbness behind her eyes.
How peculiar, how maddening the whole situation was. First there was Merope, hopelessly infatuated with Tom Riddle. A chance meeting led to an introduction and an unusual friendship. Then Tom cooled towards his fiancee, who showed up in Bethe's shop asking for a love potion. Assuming that it was for Tom, Bethe had mentioned it to Merope, implying that Cecilia was actively competing for his affection - when it had all been a misunderstanding!
What if I'd known that Cecilia was buying it for her sister's lover? Bethe asked herself. I wouldn't have mentioned it to Merope, and she wouldn't have tricked an innocent man into this web of deceit.
The potion had singlehandedly deprived Cecilia of her intended and now, indirectly, Rose of her potential fiance. How many others had it already affected?
How many others would be affected?
The cathedral of Great Hangleton was an impressive stone structure set in the heart of the city. Merope stepped out of the carriage, feeling very small and countrified. Pale ribbons of pink and gold were already forming on the eastern horizon. It had taken them much longer than expected to reach Great Hangleton, but here they were.
Tom knocked on the door of a small house outside the cathedral. A short, balding man came out in a long rumpled nightshirt and blue dressing-gown, looking slightly alarmed. "May I help you?"
"We're in need of your services," said Tom, taking Merope's hand. "We wish to be married."
"Yes, of course. Come back any time in the morning..."
"We wish to be married immediately." Tom reached into his pocket for a large handful of money. "You'll be paid handsomely for your trouble."
The man rubbed his bleary eyes, staring at the money. "I see," he spoke, after a moment's hesitation. "Then will you kindly wait in the church? I'll be in shortly."
"Thank you." Pleased, Tom led Merope to the door of the cathedral, the two servants trailing behind. "I'm sorry I couldn't give you a big ceremony," he whispered.
She squeezed his hand. "It doesn't matter," she said quietly, "as long as we're together."
The minister joined them very shortly, looking much more presentable in his long white robes. "Follow me, please." He led them into a high-ceilinged chamber that could easily have fit a thousand of the Gaunts' cottages. Shining wooden pews lined the room and stained glass windows adorned the walls. The altar stood on a raised platform at the head of the room.
Merope walked hand-in-hand with Tom, sneaking a quick glance at his happy face. When I leave this church, I'll be Tom Riddle's wife, she realized.
The ceremony passed by in a blur. Tom and Merope stood facing the minister, while the two servants sat in the pew behind them. The minister read selections from his prayer book before prompting them with the traditional vows. Tom's voice was calm and reassuring, and Merope heard herself repeat the words with a serenity she didn't feel.
They each signed their names on the marriage certificate, Tom's bold scrawl set permanently beside her own childish letters. From a coat pocket, Tom produced a matched pair of simple gold bands. He grinned at the surprised look on her face and when the minister gave them a nod, they each slipped one onto the other's ring finger.
"Will you, Thomas Everard Riddle, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?"
"I will," Tom answered firmly, without a hint of hesitation.
"And will you, Merope Annabelle Gaunt, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?"
"I will," she whispered.
The minister beamed at them both. "Then I pronounce you man and wife, and you may kiss your bride."
Tom swooped her into his arms and kissed her deeply. When they finally broke apart, gasping for air, Merope had to stifle a giggle at the appalled look on the minister's face; no doubt he had expected a chaste peck on the lips. Gretchen was sniffling quietly into a handkerchief and when Henry shook hands with his master, there was actually emotion on his face. He quickly regained his usual impassiveness. "The train to Southampton leaves at six, sir. It's already quarter past five and we must be off," he told Tom in an undertone.
"Very well," Tom answered, holding his arm out for Merope with a smile. "If we must, we must. The carriage awaits, Mrs. Riddle."
It all began when Betty Tupman, the under-housemaid to the Riddle family, went home for supper. Her father, old Timothy Tupman, was a carpenter who specialized in repairs all over Hangleton and knew every soul in the area. The name of Gaunt was not unfamiliar to him and when Betty reported that the Gaunt girl was betrothed to young Master Tom, he was quite unwilling to believe her. Knowing his daughter to be honest, however, Mr. Tupman went to verify the information.
The Porters next door had a nephew who worked at the manor and who had witnessed the Riddles' terrible row. According to him, Mary Riddle had been beside herself with weeping all afternoon and night, screaming that her son had been stolen from her. This piece of information, coupled with the tidbit about the Gaunt girl, was just too explosive to be kept quiet. Mrs. Rita Porter took it upon herself to enlighten her sister-in-law, who then told her husband, who told his brother, who let it slip over a mug of ale at the Hanged Man. The men at the pub hurried home to inform their wives, who talked amongst themselves with the excitement that human beings display when others are in distress.
Thus it was that on the afternoon after Tom Riddle and Merope Gaunt's departure from Little Hangleton, the news of their elopement had spread through the village like wildfire. A large group of women gathered inside the cozy bake shop that cold November day, completely beside themselves with interest.
"A scandal! An absolute scandal!" gushed Lucy Shepherd, without bothering to hide her glee. "Can you imagine what this will do to the name of Riddle?"
"They're ruined for life," Amelia Johnson agreed, sharp eyes gleaming. "They'll never be able to show their faces again after this."
"What happened, exactly? Are you quite sure that it was the Gaunt girl?" inquired a farmer's wife.
Rita Porter rolled her eyes. "Of course it was, Pippa!" she said indignantly. "My nephew Gregory always tells the truth, and that was the very girl! The one with the wonky eyes..."
"She was sitting bold as brass in Mrs. Riddle's parlor, is what Tupman's girl says," added Mrs. Shepherd knowledgeably.
"I heard that she broke a teacup..."
"I heard that she threw a teacup in Mrs. Riddle's face..."
Under the din of chattering women, Mrs. Shepherd turned to her friend. "Why would he marry her of all people?" she mused. "He was engaged to that beautiful Miss Ingle -"
"Ingram, dear," Mrs. Johnson corrected her.
" - and now he had to go and choose someone a hundred times poorer and plainer," continued Mrs. Shepherd, as though she hadn't heard.
"Think about it, Lucy. Why do people get married in a hurry?" Mrs. Johnson prompted her slyly.
Mrs. Porter, who was listening in, gasped. "You think so, Amelia?"
Mrs. Johnson shrugged. "Wait until it's born, count the months on your fingers, and see exactly why they had to marry in a hurry. But then I do wonder why the possibility is there at all..."
"Exactly," Mrs. Shepherd said plaintively, "just as I was saying. Why would he choose her of all the girls? The old Tom Riddle would sooner have married his horse than take up with a woman so beneath him."
"Devilry," Mrs. Porter suggested darkly. "There was always something wrong with those Gaunts..."
"She must have used her feminine wiles to lure him in," agreed Mrs. Johnson.
"What if -" began Pippa, the farmer's wife, in a timid voice. "What if they fell in love?" A dozen faces turned to her in disbelief and she shrugged helplessly. "It happens..."
Mrs. Johnson shook her head. "Extremely unlikely," she said firmly, and everyone nodded and murmured in perfect agreement.
And that was that.
Later that evening, Merope sat in her dressing room on the Princess Christine, the ocean liner bound for Cherbourg. She was at the vanity table, carefully tucking away two small vials of precious, amber-colored liquid into the darkness of a drawer. She'd managed to slip another drop into Tom's glass of wine at dinner. When she straightened, she was distracted by her own reflection in the mirror. She barely even recognized herself. The girl looking back at her was a fine lady, her hair set in soft curls, her eyes bright and happy, her face smooth and smelling of rosewater. But when Merope touched her hair, the girl did too; when she straightened the folds of her mauve silk dressing gown, the girl followed suit. I am that girl, she marveled. That girl is me.
"Oh!" Merope gasped and touched the gold chain that still dangled from her neck. Had the locket finally spoken to her?
"Did you say something, ma'am?" Gretchen called from the adjacent room, where she was making up the bed.
"N-no," Merope answered. She pulled the locket out from underneath the silk collar of her robe and examined it. The heavy gold felt warm in the palm of her hand. Are you there? she asked it silently.
I am here. You are here. We are here...
Why have you been silent for so long? she asked, gazing at the tiny glittering emerald.
The locket shone calmly at her in the lamplight. Silence is golden.
I needed your help when I was at the Riddles' house. I begged you to say something, and you didn't.
It gleamed at her. No harm done. You are where I want you to be.
"Mrs. Riddle?" Gretchen appeared in the doorway of the dressing room and Merope jumped in surprise. The maid carried in a huge bouquet of red roses, arranged in a cut-glass vase. "Mr. Riddle had these sent to you, ma'am, with a note."
"Thank you," said Merope shyly, setting the vase on her vanity table and accepting the note. She wanted to read the message but Gretchen was still standing there expectantly, as though awaiting orders. "I - could you ... if you could please -"
Thankfully, Gretchen seemed to understand and bobbed a quick curtsy. "Please ring me if you need anything else, ma'am."
When she was gone, Merope buried her nose among the flowers and took a deep sniff of their heady fragrance. "How beautiful," she murmured with delight, unfolding Tom's note impatiently. The message had only four words written in Tom's slanting handwriting: My love, turn around.
She spun around to see Tom grinning at her from the doorway of the adjacent room, holding a velvet box in his hands. "Tom! How long have you been here?" she demanded, laughing.
"Just slipped in when the maid left," he said casually.
"Thank you for the flowers," she told him, standing up to give him a kiss. "They're beautiful! But what's in the box?"
Tom smiled at her indulgently. "Why don't you open it and see?"
She took it from him, feeling like a child on Christmas Day as she unwrapped the ribbon and lifted the lid. Resting on a bed of navy velvet was the most beautiful necklace she had ever seen. It was a simple chain of tiny interlocking squares of diamonds and rubies, with a larger blood-red ruby at the center. Merope nearly dropped the box in her shock. "Tom!" she gasped.
He chuckled and led her over to the vanity table. She sat down and faced the mirror, and he knelt beside her chair. "I saw this in a shop window when we changed trains in Northampton and thought it'd make a good wedding present," he explained, draping the jewels over her neck and fastening it at the back. "But what's this?" His fingers rested on the gold chain at the nape of her neck.
Merope laughed. "Oh, it's just something my father gave me."
"Ugly old thing," he commented, examining the oval locket with the engraved serpent. "You should get rid of it. I'll buy you a much prettier locket."
The word resounded so loudly in her head that she gasped, afraid Tom had heard.
"What's the matter, darling?" Tom asked, concerned.
"N-nothing," she answered quickly, her face hot. "I'm just attached to it, that's all. But if you don't like it, Tom, I will of course get rid of it."
You'll do no such thing!
Tom smiled affectionately and put his arm around her. "We can have the stone removed and put it into another necklace or a ring, if you like. It looks like the only thing of value. But won't you take it off so we can see what the ruby necklace looks like?"
"Yes, of course," she answered, and lifted her hands to the clasp.
You need me ... remember that it was I who helped you!
Annoyance washed over her. I helped myself, she told it, and tore it from her neck. The locket looked so small and insignificant lying on the vanity table. She looked away from it and into the mirror at her face and Tom's. The ruby necklace looked absolutely stunning, gleaming scarlet against her pale skin.
"It looks beautiful, just as I thought it would," Tom said proudly. He leaned his head into the side of her neck, kissing her bare shoulder. "You're beautiful."
"You've given me so many wedding presents, Tom," she told him wistfully, "and I haven't given you anything..."
"The only thing I want is you," he whispered, and covered her smile with a kiss. She turned in her chair to face him, her arms resting loosely on his shoulders. "Will you come to bed?" he asked, and when she nodded docilely, he stood up and lifted her easily in his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder, amazed at how light she felt as he carried her into the bedroom.
The fan-shaped marble lamps were dim, casting a soft golden glow over the entire room. The ornate four-poster bed with its powder blue canopy and soft azure spread reminded Merope of a big blue sailboat, floating gently on the sea. The moonlit water outside the porthole increased this effect and she felt like a mermaid as Tom laid her on the bed. She sunk into the embrace of the goosedown pillows and watched, for the first time in her life, as a man undressed. It struck her how complicated Tom's clothing was, at least compared to that of her father and brother. There was the charcoal jacket, the soft gray pinstriped waistcoat, and his white silk shirt and smoke-striped cravat. The gold cuff links clinked gently on the bedside table when he laid them down.
He stood beside the bed and smiled at her. "I wish you could see how you look to me," he said softly, "and how incredibly beautiful you are."
Merope thought she would weep with love; she who had never been called anything but "ugly" by everyone, she who had always abhorred her own strange eyes and mousy hair, had just been declared "beautiful" by a man who looked at her with passion burning in his eyes. How could she not succumb? How could she help but give in to the gentle cradling of the big blue sailboat, floating on the sea with the one she loved?
He bent over her and covered her face with kisses, and when he covered her body with his, she felt safer, warmer, and more protected than she had ever felt before. And when he held her face in his hands and asked her, "Are you afraid?" It was with utter honesty that she shook her head and pulled him closer, relishing the weight of his body on hers. He helped her out of her dressing-gown and hugged her tightly to him, his lips open against the side of her neck, his fingers expertly slipping open each pearl button on her nightgown. When his hands touched her bare skin, she gasped at their intense heat and shut her eyes.
"Who did this to you?" Tom whispered. She opened her eyes to see him examining a dark bruise at the front of her left shoulder, an angry mark on her flesh, and she shook her head silently. It's not important anymore, she told him with her eyes and he seemed to understand, though his face darkened and he held her with a fierce protectiveness. His hand moved down the length of her body and returned to her waist, bringing the hem of her gown with it.
The moon reflected off the waves outside, casting a soft, curving light onto the canopy above them. She could almost imagine that it was the sky above the two of them, the clouds watching them on the sailboat together, about to jump beneath the waves. She was not afraid, for Tom would be with her when they sank beneath the water; Tom was all she needed, all she cared for. With him, there was no need to breathe air.
"Do you love me?" she asked him.
His eyes were hazy and dark with desire. "Yes," he whispered. "I love you."
And she believed him when he said it, trusted in his love without even a hint of doubt, and when the moment came, it was with fulfillment, with total completion. She had been nothing but a half-person before, empty of love, empty of hope, and now she was perfectly whole. She cradled him in her arms, feeling his warm breath between her neck and her shoulder. He was whispering her name and it seemed like the most beautiful name she had ever heard - why had she ever hated it? She wanted to say his name, so she did, and she could feel his lips smiling even with his face buried in her hair.
Even when the moment ended, he was unwilling to let her go. He rolled onto his back, pulling her with him into the arc of his body, his arms tightening around her. He pressed a kiss on her damp forehead but when she looked up at him, he was already asleep. She rested her cheek on his shoulder and watched him dreaming, smiling at how young he looked when his face was relaxed in slumber. He was no more than a boy, after all, the boy she loved so much that she felt her heart would break with the strength of it. She hadn't realized that there tears on her face, that she was crying from sheer happiness. His hands were folded together on her waist, the left one resting on top and the wedding ring - the one that matched her own - was shining merrily in the moonlight.
She marveled that this was how it would be for the rest of her life, watching her husband sleep with her head on his shoulder, their twin rings glowing in the light of the moon. How could anyone deserve such happiness? she thought, gazing at Tom's peaceful face. And when she joined him in dreaming, still wrapped in his embrace, it was with utter unconsciousness that the moonlight was also illuminating the locket that lay forgotten on the table next door.
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