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Chapter 15 : The Leave Taking
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"Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without
and know we cannot live within."
- James Arthur Baldwin
Tom woke up a few mornings later with a painfully dry throat. He coughed and sat up in bed, trying to swallow with difficulty. He reached for the glass of water on his nightstand and drank all of it in one gulp, but the thirst seemed to get even worse. I might as well have drunk sand, he thought crankily, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He gave a few more raspy, painful coughs.
He turned around and saw Merope watching him. "What?"
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes, if by 'all right' you mean my bloody throat's on fire," he replied testily, rising to his feet. He thought she could look more concerned or offer to get him more water, but instead she lay motionlessly in bed with her strange eyes on him. Why did he ever think they were beautiful? "I'm going to get some more water."
Merope shook her head slowly. "It won't do any good."
"What do you mean?" he demanded. "Of course it will. Even a child knows that when it's thirsty, it needs to drink water."
"Don't you remember what happened in Genoa?" she said tentatively.
He glared at her. Would she never stop reminding him about that night? But when he thought about it, he realized that was the night this same thirst had come upon him, a thirst that a pitcher of water couldn't quench. And then all of a sudden, it had disappeared. Tom racked his brains for an answer, but he came up with nothing. "I think I'll call Dr. Andrews for some cough syrup," he said.
"That won't do any good, either."
"Bloody hell, woman, will you tell me what will do me good?" he roared. He hadn't intended to raise his voice but just the sight of her infuriated him. Something was wrong here, very wrong. The way she flinched made him even angrier.
"You'll just have to live with it for a little while," she said gently, sitting up in bed. She wrapped her arms around her own thin shoulders and looked at him with those strange, sad eyes. "You're craving the love potion. I expect this is an after-effect..."
Tom sighed loudly. "Not this again! Love potions don't exist, Merope!"
"I told you, Tom, I've been using one on you," Merope answered with perfect calm, though she was fidgeting with the edge of the blanket. "It's how I got you to fall in love with me. It's why you married me."
He walked back over to the bed and sat down, looking straight into her eyes. "You are insane," he said slowly.
"Don't you remember what happened with Cecilia? Don't you recall how quickly you ended things with her so you could be with me?" she persisted.
Something tugged at the edges of his memory. Yes, why had he grown tired of Cecilia so quickly? They had been engaged to wed, hadn't they? Tom frowned, struggling to remember. Why in blazes was his mind so slow? He felt like he had been in a dusty closet for months and had just come out into the daylight, lost and disoriented. "She was the one who ended the engagement," he said aloud, surprising himself. "I merely agreed to it."
Merope nodded. "And you proposed to me immediately and took me to meet your parents."
His parents ... Tom closed his eyes, trying to organize his thoughts. It was like trying to fit together the pieces of a particularly stubborn puzzle. He remembered his mother shouting and crying ... yes, she had been upset. She had been shouting at Merope - something about stealing her son away. Someone had thrown a teacup. I threw the teacup, Tom recalled suddenly, feeling his face grow warm with shame. "They hated you so much," he murmured.
"They didn't approve of me," she agreed quietly. "They didn't approve of our marrying so quickly."
"And then we left the house," continued Tom, thinking hard. "I left the house. I left everything behind ... for you." He opened his eyes and stared at his wife, feeling the oddest sensation of deja vu. It was worse than looking at a stranger; it was like looking at an acquaintance whose name he couldn't quite remember, frustrating and uncomfortable. One by one, the memories of their time at the cottage came back into his mind. They had read books and there had been music. "We were friends," he exclaimed suddenly. "I liked talking to you, didn't I? You made me dinner and I played the violin."
A half-hearted smile flitted across Merope's face. "That's right."
"But I never even thought of marrying you," he said. "I enjoyed your company. And I liked the hot water you gave me - it smelled like grass and springtime and lemons." His thirst, which he had temporarily forgotten, came back with a vengeance as he thought of that citrus-infused fragrance, the steam curling gently in the air.
Merope got out of bed and walked over to the dresser. From the bottom drawer she removed a porcelain box and carried it over to him. Tom recognized it as one of the gifts he had given her on their honeymoon and looked at her questioningly, but she only opened it and took out a shining glass phial. Slowly she opened it and held it underneath his nostrils. The tantalizing fragrance was one that Tom recognized immediately. He reached for it eagerly but she snatched it away. "Merope, I'm dying of thirst!" he complained.
"You won't die," she responded. "But you can't drink this anymore, Tom."
He was barely listening to her because with just one whiff of the amber-colored liquid, all of his confusion returned. He felt like he loved Merope, he felt like reaching for her and holding her in his arms. And then within a matter of seconds, the feeling subsided and he was just a thirsty, irritable man once again. What just happened? "Let me smell it again," he said urgently.
His wife looked at him doubtfully, cradling the phial against her.
"I won't take it, I just want to smell it once more. I want to know -"
Reluctantly Merope opened the phial again and held it out to Tom for just a fraction of an instant. Immediately he felt that longing, so strong this time that he actually reached out for her hand. The minute she removed the phial, the longing vanished and he dropped her hand in shock. "My god," he said. "Oh my god."
She looked at him wearily. "Tom -"
"It really is true, isn't it?" he exclaimed, getting up and backing away from her. "What kind of hellish creation is that? Is it some sort of drug, Merope?" He stared at the amber liquid in her hands, his thirst for it beginning to fade. "Have you been feeding it to me all this time?"
"Yes," she said desperately, "I tried to tell you -"
He gaped at her in fear. "This is how you made me marry you, you said," he whispered. "This is how you made me fall in love with you, by drugging me."
Merope nodded silently, tears beginning to form in her eyes.
Tom just stared, his eyes moving all over her face, trying to find some ounce of logic in all this. He wanted so badly to understand. "Why?" he asked finally.
"Because I loved you so much," she said pleadingly, "because I wanted you for myself." She continued on and on, explaining her motives, but he couldn't comprehend a word of it.
For the life of him, he couldn't remember when she had first given him the drink, but he supposed it had been easy. They had been friends, after all, and she had made him so many meals. It would have been the work of an instant to give him something hot to drink with dinner. They had been friends... "But how could you do this to me?" he asked, struggling to maintain his temper. Becoming violent with her would not give him the answers he sought. "If you cared for me as much as you say, how could you knowingly drug me? Manipulate me?"
She didn't seem to have an answer to that. "I'm sorry, Tom," she whispered, her face wet with tears.
"You tricked me," Tom exclaimed, his voice rising despite his resolution to remain calm. "Merope, you tricked me and lied to me!"
"I'm so sorry, Tom," she repeated, lifting one arm as though to touch him and then deciding against it.
Tom shook his head wildly. "Sorry?" he echoed. "Sorry doesn't erase the fact that you stole almost four months of my life away! You destroyed my relationship with my parents, with Cecilia - my god, did you ever think about them, Merope? You tricked me into leaving them behind, everything and everyone I loved!"
"I know, I know!" she sobbed. "Don't you think I know that? Don't you think that it's been torturing me?"
"I don't know what to think anymore, Merope!" Tom shouted back, throwing caution to the winds. "I don't even know you! What kind of a person would do this to their friend?"
She sank to the ground, shaking from head to toe with sobs.
The slightest note of pity crept into his heart but he crushed it immediately. He looked at the woman - his wife - with a cold fury, but could find no more words for her. Deliberately he turned on the spot and threw the bedroom door open.
"Tom!" she cried. "Where are you going?"
He ignored her and strode purposefully out into the hallway, ignoring the red faces of Gretchen and another maid who had heard the row. Walking downstairs, he threw open the door and stepped out into the rain. He hardly knew where he was going himself, but he could not remain in that house for another second.
He didn't return until very late that night. Merope had lain in bed all day, too weak to think of getting up or sending the maid for something to eat. She kept telling herself that she had done the right thing, that even though she had done Tom a great wrong, this would surely atone for it ... but all of her reassurance failed when she saw his stony face. He came into their bedroom and began pulling his belongings from the closet, stripping the dresser and the night table of his possessions. He did not answer her when she called his name, but continued gathering his things mechanically.
"I know that you think I'm evil," she said desperately to his rigid back, trying not to cry again. Crying would only make things worse. "I know that I did a terrible thing, but Tom, I truly did it because I loved you."
He didn't answer, continuing to throw clothing into a suitcase without looking at her.
"I dreamed of escaping with you," Merope persisted, trembling. "I wanted you to save me from my life - I was stupid, Tom, I was childish not to think of the consequences..."
Only when he had finished filling two suitcases did Tom straighten and address her. He spoke in a flat voice and faced the opposite wall as he did so. "This marriage never happened. I'm filing for an annulment," he stated. He ignored her gasp and kept speaking. "I've left you a small sum of money to be used at your discretion. If you need more, you may write to my attorney." He took a slip of paper from his pocket and laid it on a chair, still not looking at her. "This cottage will also be yours. My family has no use for it anymore."
Merope stared at his stern profile. There was no trace of the man who had held her, kissed her, and showered her with gifts. That man had been a fantasy; this, then, was the real Tom Riddle, once her friend and lover and now almost an enemy. She had seen in him what she had wanted to see, but all this time he had never really been hers. He had never been meant for her and now he would walk away and forget her. "Tom -" she began, but the words dried in her throat and she fell silent. Nothing she said would undo the past or change the future. Nothing she did would help anymore.
Tom picked up his suitcases and walked out the door. His footsteps echoed on the stairs slowly, firmly. She heard him speaking to Henry, and then the front door opened with a creak. Voices murmured and then the door closed, leaving nothing but silence.
With all of her strength, Merope pushed herself out of bed and hurried into the hallway. "Tom!" she cried. She rushed down the stairs, but there was no one there; even the servants had gone. She threw open the front door and stared out into the darkness. It was still raining and the air was thick with fog, but she could just glimpse the outline of a carriage beginning to pull out of the gates. Despite her thin nightdress and her bare feet, Merope found herself running after it. "Tom! Wait!" She stumbled and fell, scraping her knee on the ground. "Tom!"
But the carriage was pulling away silently. She thought she saw a pale face at one of the windows, but it was too dark to make out the features. She lay on the wet ground, sobbing desperately. The rain fell steadily, pattering onto the ground to the rhythm of her aching heart. She could hear nothing else but the storm and the crashing of the sea. She was alone, utterly alone.
Tom had gone from her forever.
On a mild spring morning in April, Mrs. Amelia Johnson hurried to the Little Hangleton bakery. The gaggle of gaping women who stood outside looked up expectantly when she arrived.
"Is it true, Amelia?" asked one of them. "Has the Squire's son really returned at last?"
"True as you see me standing before you," she assured them, and a collective gasp sounded through the air. "He returned last night with two servants and a pair of suitcases. No wife, interestingly enough..."
This bit of news had not been circulated and everyone began chattering at once.
"That Gaunt girl? I wonder where she could be -"
"Do you think she died in childbirth?"
"No, stupid, they'd only been married four months -"
Mrs. Johnson waved her arms for silence. "My sources tell me," she began importantly, "that he returned without a wedding ring."
Several pairs of eyebrows raised.
"Maybe he divorced her!" someone exclaimed gleefully.
"No wife, no wedding ring," remarked a coy girl named Susan. "I s'pose this means Tom Riddle is back on the market?"
"I don't think a farmer's daughter like you is much to his taste, Sue ..."
"Well he married a peasant girl, didn't he?!"
"True, and it never hurts to look at him. My, isn't he nice to look at -"
As the week went on, the excitement grew even more. Tom Riddle was indeed home and could be seen riding about the town as he had done in the old days. He was handsomer than ever and many a village girl went into a frenzy at the sight of him trotting by. He seemed a little different, though. The old Tom Riddle had swaggered through town with his head held high, but this one rode with his eyes on his saddle. Tongues began to wag about the exact circumstances of his whirlwind marriage.
The fever of curiosity had not escaped even the queen of Little Hangleton. Mary Riddle had welcomed her son back with open arms. "Tom, I've missed you so!" she had sobbed, clinging to him. "Why didn't you write me? Not even a note in four whole months. Of course I'll never reproach you, but look how thin I've become! And your father was so upset ... though it didn't seem to affect his appetite."
Tom had hugged her back distractedly. "Sorry, Mother, I won't leave again," was all he had to say.
Overjoyed as Mrs. Riddle was at her beloved child's return, the village gossip disturbed her. She had always known that her family was the subject of many a bored villager's conversation, but to hear her boy's name bandied around in conjunction with that disgusting tart - oh, what was her name again? Something ungodly ... Malopey? - was enough to break her heart.
Upon informing Tom of this, she only received a shrug. "Don't you care, son?" she asked him, standing over his chair in the library. "Isn't it horrible to hear these outlandish stories about your personal life?"
"I don't acknowledge them, Mother," he said tiredly. "They'll die down sometime."
"What we need is a good solid story to shut them up," Mrs. Riddle said, ignoring him. "What did happen, Tom? Between you and Remopey?"
Her son sighed and lowered the book to his knees, knowing that she would not leave until he answered. "The marriage took its course and then it ended. She wasn't the person I thought she was. Satisfied?"
"Very," Mrs. Riddle responded, kissing his forehead. "Enjoy your book. I'll call you for dinner in an hour."
She strode out of the room purposefully, her heels clicking on the wood floor. So, she thought vindictively, that must mean the strumpet pretended she was pregnant so he would marry her. The nerve! She went down into the kitchen and faced the cook and the four maids, who curtsied. "The hussy who married my son pretended she was pregnant so he would wed her," she announced. "Be sure to make his roast dinner just the way he likes it. Bake a honey cake to cheer him up. I want everything to be perfect."
It took three hours for the news to spread to every corner of Little Hangleton, but by the end of the day everyone was perfectly satisfied. It all made perfect sense and it even explained why he had abandoned his family for the tramp's daughter. Underneath that snobbish exterior, Tom Riddle was a man of honor!
But even as everyone chatted happily about this development and continued on with their daily lives, that same man of honor sat alone in the library of Riddle Manor with his head in his hands, a prisoner of his own thoughts.
Merope had never been so ill in her entire life. She supposed that lying all night in the rain had not done wonders for her health. Somehow she had managed to drag herself back into the house. For days - possibly weeks, she had no idea - she lay in bed alternately burning with fever and shivering from chills. She dreamed endlessly of Tom. Sometimes they were good dreams in which he returned, and sometimes they were nightmares in which she relived that horrible night over and over. She was too weak to leave the bed and sometimes wondered if she would starve to death. Merope wasn't afraid to die. She rather welcomed the idea of losing herself to oblivion, unable to remember and think back on what she had lost. Life seemed bleak and meaningless without Tom and she could envision time stretching out forever, lonely years of wondering whether somewhere out there, he had forgotten her...
One night when the fever was at its worst, she felt a strange urge to take the locket out of her porcelain box. With all the strength she had left, Merope fell back into bed and clutched it to her chest, falling into a dreamless slumber.
When she woke up, she thought she saw a man sitting on the edge of her bed. He didn't look like anyone she had ever known. He was tall and thin and pale, with green eyes that reminded her of a cat's. He didn't speak to her but simply sat there, staring down at her with his calm, steady gaze. His face was expressionless, appraising. He reached out and touched her forehead, but she couldn't feel his hand. In fact she couldn't even feel his weight on the bed, and the more she looked at him the more she realized that he was filmy and silvery ... like a ghost. The moment she blinked, he vanished into thin air.
He was back again the following night. In her muddled, confused state, Merope thought he held a hot washcloth in his hand and was applying it to her forehead. She felt the soothing warmth on her face and fell asleep. When she awoke, there was a mug of scalding hot soup on the night table beside her and she found that she was hungry. Slowly she sat up and sipped the clear broth, feeling it warm her belly, before lapsing into sleep once more.
This went on for several nights. The strange man appeared regularly and never spoke to her, but always brought something that would soothe her - washcloths, light food, even a strong-smelling syrup that must have been medicine. So it was that on a sunny morning in mid-April, Merope felt well enough to sit up in bed. The man was, of course, nowhere to be found.
"Hello?" she called out, half expecting a response. I couldn't have imagined him... She turned to look at the nightstand, searching for the washcloths and the food he had brought her, but there was nothing. Merope swung her feet to the floorboards and tried standing up.
She was so hungry, so desperately hungry. With the greatest difficulty, she descended the stairs and wandered into the kitchen. Food and dishes were scattered all over the counters as though the servants had left in a hurry. Which they had, she reminded herself, remembering Tom's hasty departure. Thinking of him hurt too much and she quickly focused on her search for food. There was half a loaf of bread in the cupboard and she ate it ravenously, ignoring the stale taste. How long it had been there, she neither knew nor cared.
Her hunger abated, Merope sat alone in the empty silence. "What am I going to do?" she said aloud, hearing the shaky desperation in her own voice. Slowly, she got up from the chair and went into the corridor. There was a white envelope on the table by the door and she opened it, gasping when she saw how much money was inside. It would be more than enough to last her several months.
"If he left me money," she murmured, "he must care about me. He must be coming back!" She kissed the envelope, tears forming in her eyes as a ridiculous hope blossomed in her heart. Tom could not completely hate her. Hadn't he even instructed her to write him for more? She hurried to her bedroom and examined the note he had left on the chair. His familiar handwriting jumped out at her, spelling the name and address of his attorney in Great Hangleton. Why hadn't he given her his own address? Didn't he want to hear from her?
Merope sank onto the chair. Of course he didn't want to hear from her. He was only providing for her because he pitied her. His angry voice echoed in her mind. You tricked me! You tricked me and lied to me! Merope shrank onto the floor, pressing both hands over her ears as though he were in the room screaming at her. What kind of person would do this to their friend? She felt so ill and her stomach hurt so much. Hastily Merope hurried into the bathroom and bent over the sink, retching. Her face in the mirror was pale and damp with perspiration. She splashed cold water on her forehead and collapsed onto the bed.
"Help me," she moaned. "Help me, please help..." She hardly knew for whom she called. Faces swam before her eyes and then a familiar voice murmured to her, soft and comforting.
Poor darling child, don't you know that you're not alone? You are never alone...
Wearily she turned her head to one side. The locket lay on the bed beside her, half-covered by the blankets. She had almost forgotten that she had cradled it to her in her fever. "You," she whispered, clasping it in her hand. There was something familiar about the way the emerald gleamed at her, like a cunning feline eye. It reminded her of the strange man who had taken care of her.
I'm here to help you, my little girl. Let me help you, let me be your friend.
"I want Tom," she whispered.
Put him from your mind, Merope. Concern yourself with him no longer.
"I need him, please -"
You need no one, daughter of Slytherin. Have courage...
"I have none," she answered weakly, squeezing the tears from her eyes. "I wish to die, please let me die in peace. I deserve death for what I have done..."
The locket warmed reprovingly. You must live, Merope, if not for yourself then for him...
Merope shook her head. "He doesn't care whether I should live or die," she answered, though she knew that this was partly untrue. She thought of the envelope of money sitting on the hallway table, of the lawyer's address.
I spoke not of your precious Tom, the locket said witheringly.
She looked down at it, confused.
You must live for him, it continued, the emerald shining as brightly as ever, he who has yet to come into the world. The one to whom you will give life...
Merope's eyes widened. "What do you mean?" she breathed, sitting up in bed. "Of whom do you speak?"
Of the one who will carry the blood of Salazar Slytherin, the locket whispered, of the dark prince to come. Your son...
"My son," she echoed with wonder, though the words did not taste pleasant on her lips. She glanced down at her belly, trying to picture it round and swollen with the growing life within. "My son..."
In late April, Bethe Lawney returned to Little Hangleton. She came to collect her remaining belongings from the care of neighbors, books and boxes and light furniture that hadn't yet been taken to the house in Silvermist Woods. She came with two carriages in tow to store her possessions and smiled at the awed villagers who had known her as a simple, frugal young woman.
"I'm so glad you've come back to visit," Lucy Shepherd remarked, hugging Bethe. "You look wonderful."
"Not too high and mighty for us yet," observed Amelia Johnson, settling for a brisk handshake. "How is your grandmother's house?"
"Much too large for one woman," Bethe replied, laughing. "I've been thinking of turning it into a school - I'd love to teach reading." This reminded her of another pressing reason she had returned to Little Hangleton. "Tell me, have you any news of the Gaunt family?"
Mrs. Johnson wrinkled her nose. "Still interested in that barmy lot, I see," she muttered. "I never could see how you maintained your friendship with that girl, Bethe -"
"You heard of her elopement, of course?" Mrs. Shepherd interrupted. "No doubt everyone in the next five counties has heard of it. Master Tom returned at the beginning of April..."
"They're here?" Bethe asked excitedly.
The two women looked at each other. "He came back alone, without his wife and without a wedding ring," Mrs. Shepherd said gently. "He's been living at Riddle Manor with his parents ever since."
"But where's Merope? What has happened to her?" demanded Bethe.
Damn my visions, she thought, they come when I least want them and go missing when I need them most!
Mrs. Johnson shrugged. "No one knows, Bethe. The story is that she tricked him into marrying her," she explained. "Apparently she made him believe that she was pregnant."
"When he discovered that she was lying, he left her," added Mrs. Shepherd, shaking her head. "Took him four whole months. Men, I tell you, as clueless as babies..."
Bethe didn't answer. Her mind was racing, putting two and two together. So Tom had left Merope! The pregnancy rumor was bollocks, of course, but his claim that Merope had tricked him into marriage was truth. Somehow he had found out about the love potion. How?
"The son is still in jail," Mrs. Johnson was saying. "How long has it been, Lucy? Seven or eight months? Perhaps they've sent him to Siberia."
"Darling, no one sends prisoners to Siberia anymore," her friend answered gently.
"And the father is dead," said Mrs. Johnson bluntly, ignoring her.
Bethe looked up abruptly. "Dead?" she repeated. "How? I thought he was in jail..."
"They released him in March and he returned here. He was positively furious when his daughter wasn't home to greet him," Mrs. Shepherd remarked. "About three weeks ago, a man comes running into the village raising hell that Gaunt had died before he paid his debts. He found the old tramp lying dead in his cottage."
Mrs. Johnson nodded in agreement. "They say he was in perfect condition with nary a scratch on him. The doctor thinks he died of starvation."
"My God," Bethe murmured, holding a hand to her heart. "I wonder if Merope knows."
"If she does, she doesn't care enough to come back," said Mrs. Johnson. "Her father's buried behind the church there."
"I should go and pay my respects," said Bethe thoughtfully, looking the direction of the little stone church. "She was after all my friend." Hastily she bid goodbye to the two ladies, promising them another visit, and walked towards the church. Thoughts raced wildly in her mind every step of the way. How strange that Merope had seemingly disappeared. Could Tom Riddle have killed her in his fury?
She reached the graveyard before she knew it, still thinking hard, and bumped into another person at the gate. "I'm sorry," she murmured, before looking up into the handsome face of Tom Riddle himself.
"You," he said in surprise, recognizing her.
"Yes, me," Bethe snapped, feeling none too pleasant towards him. Trickery or not, he had abandoned or harmed her dear friend in some way. "And you are the very person I wanted to speak to. Sit down." She expected him to put up a fight, but instead he bent his head sadly and took a seat on the bench. This, coupled with his wrinkled clothing and the dark circles under his eyes, made her stare in wonder. She almost pitied him, but quickly hardened her resolve. "Tell me, is my friend Merope still alive or have you done away with her?" she demanded.
Tom's head shot up. "What kind of man do you think I am?" he asked angrily.
Bethe crossed her arms over her chest. "So she's alive and well?"
"Yes," he said. "I give you my word."
"Is it true what they've been saying in the village? That she tricked you into marrying her?" Bethe knew the answer better than even he did, but awaited his response.
Tom sighed. "My mother made that up. I told her nothing."
"So Merope didn't trick you?"
"Of course she did! Why else would I leave her?" he snapped, exasperated. He got up and started pacing. "I cared about her. I had nothing but honorable intentions towards her, and then all of a sudden we were married! Before I knew it, I had left everything behind without so much as a second thought. I did this for someone I barely knew, someone I didn't even love."
Bethe felt a pang for her friend. It was just as she had feared: believing that Tom returned her love, Merope had thrown all caution to the wind to prove it to herself. She had stopped the love potion...
Tom was still ranting. "There was one night in Italy when I began to remember; the clouds were clearing in my head and I started to wonder what I was doing there with her. Then there was another period where I forgot everything but her. We were so happy." He fell silent for a moment. "Then she went insane, she was going on and on about a po -" Tom broke off and looked at her warily.
"A love potion," Bethe finished for him. "I know all about it."
He looked both surprised and relieved. "She showed it to me, this clear yellow liquid, and let me smell it. I was so thirsty. I wanted the potion, I wanted her -"
"Why did she stop giving it to you?" Bethe asked.
"She said that she had ruined my life," Tom said softly, staring at his shoes. "She said that she had tricked me and that it was wrong, and she had to stop. She told me the truth. I didn't believe her, and then I threw it back in her face. I left her there all alone." He collapsed onto the bench and buried his face in his hands.
"You abandoned her!" Bethe said angrily.
"What choice did I have?" Tom shouted. "Tell me, because I would love to know! She and I were friends. I respected her, I liked her, I trusted her! And then I discovered that she had forced me into this marriage without any consent, bewitched me and caused me to throw away everything I held dear! Tell me, what else could I have done?" Bethe remained silent and he stared at her furiously. "I couldn't hate her. I wanted to so badly, but I just couldn't. She loved me and she wanted me. She did something stupid, not evil. You were her friend, too. You of all people should understand."
"I do understand," Bethe answered, sinking onto the bench. "I'm glad you know that she did it out of love. It was I who made the potion for her, you know."
Tom's head snapped up. "She asked you to make it? And you knew why and for whom?"
"Why the hell would you do something like that?" Tom cried. "You were her accomplice!"
"Yes, I was," Bethe admitted, "but I did it because I loved her. And I would never say it to her face, but I pitied her too." She bent her head. "I remember how desperate and alone she was. She was slaving away in a filthy hovel, Tom. You were her only ray of sunlight and I saw a means to give her happiness. So I did it. You don't know how I've regretted it, how I wish I'd had the strength to say no..."
Tom exhaled and remained silent for some time. "What's done is done," he said finally. "I too have my regrets, but what can I do? She was always good to me, always gentle and loving. She was honest enough to tell me the truth. And I shouted at her and accused her. I told her I would annul our marriage ... I left her money like she was a common whore -" He lowered his head to his knees.
Bethe stared at him. "You annulled the marriage?"
He shook his head. "I haven't been able to make myself do it. I keep trying..."
"Where is she, Tom?"
"My family's cottage in Ireland," said Tom. He paused. "Weren't you supposed to be in Ireland? Merope wanted to visit you. We saw Rose and she said -"
"I returned home months ago," she explained. "Tom, listen to me. We must go to her ... you must. I'm afraid she may come to harm, being all alone with a broken -" Bethe didn't finish her sentence.
"I promised my mother I would stay," Tom said in a hollow voice.
"Are you so happy here that you would abandon your wife?" Bethe asked sternly. "She's still your wife, Tom. She's still responsible for you and you for her. You said that you cared about her, at least -"
"Don't accuse me of being happy here," Tom retorted. "I'll never be happy again. Four months of complete bliss, only to find that it was all fake."
Bethe put a hand on his arm. "Tom, think carefully about this. You don't love her, but you care about her. You were friends before, why can't you live as married friends? At least she would have you with her - that's all she wants, Tom, she wants you and a life with you." He was shaking his head, but she could tell that he was listening. "You were so happy together for that short while. Have you ever been that happy in your entire life?"
Tom was silent. "No," he said finally.
"Then go back to her," she urged. "Go back under the potion. With it, you loved her and you were happy."
"Don't you think I've considered that?" Tom demanded. "I've thought about it night and day. At first I thought it was an after-effect of the potion, but then I realized that it's being here. Listening to my parents bicker, having the villagers moon over me and gossip about me. Don't you think I know that being with Merope was the happiest time of my life?" He turned to look at her. "Do you really think Merope would take me back with this explanation? She would see it as pity. She would consider herself my life's charity work." He laughed mirthlessly. "She's got more pride than a peacock, hidden behind that meek exterior."
"At least talk to her," said Bethe. "Go back and talk to her, Tom. Work everything out between the two of you. It won't do a bit of good to have you on either side of the sea, wondering what could have been."
He gave a long sigh. "I've been here in this gloomy churchyard all day," he remarked suddenly. "I heard that her father had died and I came to see his grave."
"So did I," Bethe said, surprised.
He got up from the bench and led her to the back wall of the church, shadowed by a large oak tree. There was a lonely tombstone there, pathetically small. It read only:
18 Nov 1873 - 1 Apr 1926
The two of them stood there in silence, although Bethe wasn't quite sure whether this was a sign of respect for the dead man or an unspoken pity and affection for his daughter.
Then Tom turned away from her and spoke so quietly that she could barely hear him. "I'll think about it."
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