Chapter 16 : The Birth of Darkness
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Chapter Sixteen: The Birth of Darkness
"Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before."
- Edgar Allen Poe
Everybody on the ship noticed the young man who, with the exception of his valet, appeared to be traveling alone. He was easily the handsomest man amongst them, well-dressed, and well-mannered, but what attracted the women most was the air of mystery that surrounded him. Instead of mingling with the other passengers, he would walk alone on deck and stare out to sea as though burning for land. He was polite when spoken to but always sad, distant, and armed with excuses to be off on his own again. It came as no surprise that when the ship reached port in Ireland, the young man was among the first to depart.
Tom Riddle had been dying of impatience to leave the ship. The other passengers' intense interest sickened him; it reminded him too much of being at home. Little Hangleton had been nothing more than a zoo, and he and his parents had been the prize chimpanzees. Someone staring into the cage would say, "Look! It ate a banana" in the same exact tone that a Hangleton resident would say, "Look! He came back without a wedding ring!" Tom didn't know how he could ever have been content in that place. He sat on the train across from a dozing Henry, watching the countryside fly past without really seeing it.
For the thousandth time since leaving Little Hangleton, he wondered if he was crazy. Maybe the love potion had permanently damaged his brain. Why was he going back to someone who had tricked him? Someone who had forced him to marry her against his will? But then he asked himself, Was it really against my will? He had visited the cottage and befriended Merope before ever drinking a drop in her presence. Given time, would he have fallen in love with her?
Part of him was shocked by the very idea - Merope was not a woman of his class. But Tom had to admit that she was different. He thought of the rude village girls and of Cecilia with all her fuss and feathers. Between these two extremes was Merope - Merope who had loved him, who had listened to his dreams, whose first care had been to make him happy. She was the first person who had ever loved him that way. What did his parents and friends care for his dreams? Poor men could not afford to dream, and rich men were not allowed. Wealth had many privileges, but freedom - true freedom - was not one of them.
"We're here, sir," Henry said suddenly. "I'll bring the bags out to the carriage."
Tom realized with a start that the train had stopped and followed Henry into the waiting carriage.
"Did you sleep at all, sir?" asked Henry, looking carefully at his employer.
Tom could only imagine how he looked after weeks of sleeplessness. "I'll rest tonight, Henry," he promised. He wondered if it would be in Merope's arms, blissfully muddled by the love potion. Would she take him back? Now that he came to her with his own free will, what would she do? Even more compelling was the potion itself - if the victim were willing, would it still work? Tom had so little knowledge of such things. His mother would call it witchcraft, though she wasn't above visiting the apothecary herself from time to time.
Bethe did not seem at all like a witch. Tom thought of his childhood fairy tales where witches were always cruel and ugly and old, none of which matched her description. She had been Merope's true friend, and her colossal mistake in creating the potion might even have been a blessing. Hadn't she given them four months of perfect happiness?
Tom's heartbeat quickened with each passing minute. When they finally reached the shore, he watched as the cottage appeared. Against the gloomy water, it looked cozy and welcoming. He wondered what Merope was doing. Had she taken care of herself? Had he left her enough money?
The minute the carriage stopped, Tom raced to the front door of the cottage. It was ajar - Merope was home! He pushed it open and hurried inside. "Merope?"
He ran from room to room, peering into the library, the kitchen, the parlor. There was only silence, but perhaps she was sleeping. He raced up the stairs and into their bedroom. The bed was messy, the covers almost falling to the floor. The indent in the pillow was cold. "Merope?" he called again. The dresser drawers had been left open and there was not a single article of clothing or jewelry within. The bathroom was just as empty, the sink dry as bone.
When he returned to the bedroom, Tom saw his envelope lying on the chair. He opened it and found that it was full of money. Every penny he had left Merope was still inside.
"Sir?" Henry appeared in the doorway.
"She must be in town," Tom said decisively. "We'll drive down and find her."
They left the empty house and returned to the waiting carriage. At several cottages along the way, Tom stopped the carriage to question each neighbor. But even when they reached the village and he began asking the shopkeepers, he knew in his heart that their answer would be the same.
The cottage had been dark and quiet for almost all of April. The last time anyone had seen Merope had been at the docks, where she had boarded a ship. No one knew where she was going, but they all assumed she would be traveling abroad.
She had been gone for almost a month and a half and it seemed unlikely, they said, that she would ever come back again.
Merope had known that staying in the cottage would be impossible. On one of her final evenings there she had walked through each dark room, thinking of the happy moments she and Tom had once had together. Then she had gone out to the beach with the phials of love potion, throwing them with all her might into the sea. They had shattered against the rocks, sinking deep beneath the waves.
Back in her room she had filled a suitcase with all the jewels and clothes Tom had given her. She would have enough to get by for some time, but where could she go? What was left for her in Little Hangleton? Tom would be angry if he heard that she had returned; he would think that she was following him.
But Ralph's letter had given her an answer. It had come by owl one night in early May, and she had opened it to find the final confession of a man who would never again see the light of day.
I have done you a great wrong.
I told you once that I lived for revenge, dreaming of the day when I would face the man who had taken everything from me. How strange to accomplish my task and fulfill my dream only to feel empty. Should I have been merciful? Should I have forgiven him? I will never know, but I will be thinking of what I have done for the rest of my days.
I have lost my position at the Ministry, but I hardly care. A life sentence at Azkaban makes a man realize how many things are completely meaningless.
I do care about the harm I have done by robbing you of your father. I hope you can forgive me someday. I wish you a long and happy life with your husband, and I hope you can put this all in the past and move forward.
Merope had understood what he meant by feeling empty. It was something she had often felt throughout her life and she had felt it then. Marvolo had never been kind; with him it had always been anger, cruelty, unfairness. But he had been her father. Maybe he had even loved her mother once, or believed that he loved her. How strange that after a lifetime of hating this man, Merope had nothing left to feel but pity. He had died alone in the end, friendless and unloved, however justified his demise had been.
The next morning, she had taken her suitcase and walked ten miles to the docks. Selling a ruby pin for a second-class ticket to Southampton, she had left Ireland without looking back.
The locket had approved. Since hearing of her father's death, Merope had begun wearing it again. Aside from her brother, who would probably never leave Azkaban, she supposed that she was the last remaining member of their family. But on the final evening of her voyage, it occurred to her that this was wrong. She glanced down at her belly and pictured it round and full of life. She had almost forgotten about the baby.
That's right, the locket said soothingly, you are not the last.
She envisioned the child growing within her, the little boy who would run and laugh and play, and always remind her too much of Tom. "I wish -"
What do you wish, my love?
"I wish that I wasn't going to have a baby," she whispered..
Why is that, Merope?
She didn't answer but only bowed her head, her eyes stinging with tears. This child would always be a reminder of what she had lost. Having Tom's baby would be like having a part of him that was stolen. Tom had never been rightfully hers; why would the child be? She was just like her father, always taking, never thinking.
But now with all the time in the world, she would think. She was determined to think. "Bethe!" she said suddenly. Just the thought of her kind face made Merope want to weep. Now that she had thrown away their friendship, would Bethe be willing to help her again? Somehow Merope felt that she would. Surely Bethe's generosity of spirit wouldn't allow her to hold a grudge, not when Merope was alone and pregnant. Surely Merope could make up for everything she had done, surely they could all live together and her son would have a mother as well as an aunt...
Merope crossed the room and gazed out to sea from the tiny window. No, she wasn't alone in the world after all. She had the tiniest glimmer of hope and she would grasp it with both hands.
Around her neck, the locket had fallen silent. She took its quiet acquiescence as a good omen.
He would not give up. He would never give up.
But even as he made up his mind, Tom felt that the situation was hopeless. He saw it in Henry's eyes, though the man was too discreet to say anything. He tried to ignore it, tried not to care. I'll find her, he promised himself in every city he went to, she has to be here. He felt sure that Merope would never have gone home to Little Hangleton. Hadn't she repeated over and over that there was nothing for her there? Perhaps if she knew about Marvolo Gaunt's death - but who would have told her? Bethe herself had not written to Merope for fear of rejection, in case the girl mistook her offer of friendship as charity.
In any case, Tom didn't want to go home just yet. He felt sure that Merope was revisiting the places they had gone on their honeymoon. Maybe she was reliving the happy memories just like he was. He stopped in at their hotel in France, inquiring about a young woman traveling alone. He asked for the name "Riddle" as well as the name "Gaunt," in case she was using her maiden name, but nothing turned up.
In Genoa, the kind hotel manager remembered the Riddles but regretted to inform Signor that his wife hadn't been seen since their honeymoon. Frustrated, Tom barricaded himself in his room. He stood on the balcony, watching the tourists and locals below, all dressed in white in the mild May weather. He cursed himself over and over for abandoning Merope. It was true that she had done him wrong, but what kind of man simply took off and left his wife alone and helpless? Where was the honor in that? He had only made the situation worse.
How would he ever find her again? How could he return home and tell Bethe that he had lost Merope forever?
He leaned his aching head against the cool railing and gritted his teeth.
He would not give up. He would never give up.
Evening came upon Silvermist Woods, bathing it in the sun's last rosy light. It had been warm and sunny all day and many of the houses had open windows for fresh air. As the girl walked past, she looked longingly at the families inside. More often than not, there were two parents and several rosy-cheeked children, sometimes even a dog. In one house, the father was crawling around on his hands and knees with two boys on his back, clamoring for him to go faster. The mother was grinning at the fun until she caught sight of the girl watching them from the street. Her face froze and she over to shut the window, closing the drapes.
The girl felt slightly ashamed, knowing how strange she looked. She was unkempt and dirty from having walked for miles and miles, and gave off the cringing, fearful air of someone who had been physically attacked. No one would believe that she had been the wife of a wealthy man, that just a week ago she had been a passenger on a ship from Ireland. And who could blame them? No one knew that she had gotten lost in a questionable neighborhood on a seedy street, where a depraved couple had torn away her suitcase. They had gone through her clothing and jewelry, gifts of love from her husband. The man had discovered a long wooden stick inside the suitcase and snapped it in half, sneering at her for carrying a "twig." They had resorted to violence when she tried to protest, but she supposed she ought to thank heaven that nothing worse had been done to her.
She had wandered all night in just the clothes on her back, feeling immensely lucky for the silver bracelet, ivory pin, and
wedding ring she wore. They were the only valuables she had left to sell - aside from the gold locket around her neck, but that would never be sold. She clutched it now as she walked on, mumbling under her breath as though praying. She felt faint from hunger and her head ached terribly. She had been feeling queasy for days. She stumbled on, trying to swallow the bile that rose in her throat.
A cast iron gate appeared at the end of the lane, surrounded by huge oak trees. The girl hobbled towards it gratefully, pushing it open with ease. Surely the gate being open was a good sign. Soon she would be inside the beautiful house with her dear friend. She imagined their tearful greetings and quickened her steps.
The brass door knocker was in the shape of an eagle, its talons clutching a faded coat of arms. The girl lifted it once and let it drop, its heavy thud resonating through the air. Within moments, a well-dressed housekeeper appeared. "Yes? Do you want something?" she asked, her face full of suspicion as she took in the girl's soiled face and clothing.
"Yes, I want to see Bethe," the girl said eagerly. She burst into tears of relief and exhaustion. "I've been walking ever so far, and my suitcase is gone, and Tom left and I have to tell her ... please, I need to see Bethe."
The woman frowned at this familiar use of her mistress's name. "Miss Trelawney, you mean," she said disapprovingly. "On what business?"
"I'm her friend," pleaded the girl, "please let me see her. I need to tell her that it's over ... it's all over. I left the cottage and I wanted to see her and I need a place to stay -" She suddenly realized that she was babbling. "I need to stay for the night."
The housekeeper's eyes moved from the top of the girl's head to her toes.
"You have to believe me! She helped me marry my husband," the girl pleaded. "But he's gone now, he won't be coming back because he's angry that I tricked him and..." She looked desperately at the woman. "Let me in!"
"Listen to me, girl," the woman said coldly, affronted by her manner, "if you want some food, I'll give it to you readily but I will not let you in this house. It's obvious to me that you are crazy -"
The girl became hysterical. "No, you have to let me in!"
"Please leave the premises this instant," the housekeeper commanded. "Miss Trelawney will not see you."
Her words seemed to have a strange effect on the girl, whose face went blank. "I understand," she whispered. "She's still angry with me ... she won't allow you to take in anyone who looks like me." She leaned forward suddenly as though she would be sick.
The housekeeper leapt backwards and watched as a heavy gold locket slipped from the girl's blouse and dangled in mid-air. "Are you all right?" she demanded, clutching the door as though ready to slam it shut at any second.
"No," the girl muttered. She turned and began hobbling away, her shoulders slumped as though they carried a very great weight.
Guilt and pity filled the housekeeper's heart. "Wait! At least eat and drink a little before you go!" But the girl continued walking away and didn't look back.
The housekeeper closed the door and stood quietly for some time, sighing at the sad state of the world. She returned presently to her duties, brandishing her wand skillfully to dust the tables. It was nine o'clock at night when her mistress finally returned home from a dinner party. Bethe Trelawney smiled at the older woman. "Did you have a good evening, Mrs. Green?"
"Yes, thank you, Miss," the housekeeper said. "All was peaceful and quiet. You had one visitor."
"Mr. Hunter, by any chance?"
Mrs. Green shook her head. "It was a crazy beggar woman who came hours ago, wearing dirty rags. She looked like she had been walking a great distance."
"She wanted food?"
"I offered her food and drink but she walked away without taking any. She kept asking to see you and babbling nonsense."
"Poor thing," Bethe said thoughtfully. "If you see her again, invite her in and make her eat something."
"Gladly, Miss. I'm afraid I was a little bit hard on her."
The young woman hid a smile. She knew exactly how her prim housekeeper might have behaved towards the poor beggar. "It's all right, Mrs. Green. It pays to be careful these days," she said reassuringly.
"What made me suspicious," said the housekeeper, "was her fine jewelry. There was a lovely ivory pin ... French-made, I'll wager. Ten to one she stole it!" She paused for a moment, allowing Bethe to hide another smile. "And there was a heavy locket round her neck, dangling from a gold chain. I would swear to the Wizengamot that the emerald on it was absolutely authentic."
"A real emerald?" Bethe asked lightly."
"Yes, it was the eye of a snake - or the letter 'S.' The locket was so big I could see every detail on it ... Miss Trelawney? Are you all right?"
The young woman did not answer, for a heart-stopping realization had just occurred to her. That had been no beggar woman knocking at her door.
The heat was positively stifling in wizarding London. As she struggled through the noisy streets, Merope thought longingly of Little Hangleton's sun-dappled woods. She clutched her groceries tightly. The ivory pin she had sold in May had given her enough money for three months. She had carefully rationed every Knut; If she dropped this bag of food, she couldn't eat for a week.
Her building was several blocks away and though the neighborhood wasn't very good, it was better than nothing. She struggled up the steps, ignoring the way her bulging stomach strained against her dress. The building was quiet for once, but the landlady who lived on the ground floor had her door open as always. Mrs. Barry was a sniveling old witch who loved intruding on her tenants' lives. She hated Muggles with a fanatical passion and had actually forced Merope to perform magic before renting the flat to her. Merope felt sure that the woman snooped around her flat when she went out. Not that there's anything to find there, she thought bitterly, picturing its sparse interior. She hurried up the stairs to avoid talking to the woman.
"Ah, there you are, Miss Gaunt," came Mrs. Barry's scratchy voice.
"Good afternoon," she mumbled, continuing her ascent.
"Your rent is overdue by a week!" the landlady screeched. "I'm giving you three days, Miss Gaunt! Three -"
Merope slammed the door of her flat and collapsed on her bed, the beginnings of a headache tightening around her temples. Tomorrow I'll sell the bracelet, she decided. It wasn't worth half as much as the pin, but it would get her through September. After that, she would sell her wedding ring. She guessed that her rent would be even more expensive in the winter. And after all the money was gone, what then? How would she care for the baby?
As if on cue, he gave a hearty kick inside her womb. Merope placed a hand on her belly. She couldn't get used to the idea that this would be a living, breathing person, one who would occupy all her time and drain her of her savings. Even now he was draining her of strength, demanding food that she could barely provide. When he emerged, he would become yet another person to lose.
Merope often fantasized about changing the past. Had she not let Tom go, she could be facing a winter of warmth and security with him instead of hunger and uncertainty alone. It had been five months since she had seen him last, but she dreamed about him so often that she often woke up and was surprised that he wasn't beside her. She missed him so much that sometimes it was a physical pain, tearing through her with frightening strength. She would gladly give anything, even this nuisance in her womb, just to hear his voice once more.
Exactly what did she live for? What was the point of just surviving when not a soul on Earth cared whether she lived or died?
Well, that wasn't quite true...
Merope slid onto the floor, reaching beneath the bed for the loose floorboard where she kept the most prized possession she had left. After all her belongings had been stolen, she had been careful never to wear the locket outside the flat.
You're right, the locket said approvingly. I am the only one who cares about you.
"I'm afraid," she confessed, holding it close to her heart. "Sometimes I just want to end it all." Her eyes strayed towards the window and the three-story drop that lay beyond.
Don't you dare think about it! You're carrying a child and you are responsible for him.
"Why?" she demanded. "I didn't ask for him, did I? I don't even want him!"
Doesn't he deserve a chance to live as you have? it argued. Did he ask to be conceived?
The locket had a point there. "I suppose you're right," Merope answered doubtfully. "But sometimes I think that you want this baby more than I do."
You're right, Merope, and that is because I know what he can become ... what he will become.
"I didn't know you could tell the future," she muttered.
There are a lot of things you don't know. But I cannot allow you to hurt him, not after all I have done to ensure his survival.
"You haven't done anything," Merope argued, annoyed by its bossy voice. "Tom and I made the baby, he belongs to us -"
And who was it that cared for you when you were ill? Was it Tom? it asked sardonically. It was I who made sure you survived after your wastrel of a husband abandoned you.
Merope thought of the sad-eyed man who had looked at her without speaking. That had only been a dream... surely she had imagined him. "You're just a locket," she whispered.
It was laughing, taking pleasure in her confusion. Oh, my poor naive child. I am so much more than just a locket. Tell me, who encouraged you to love Tom when there was no hope? Who nurtured your pathetic dreams of being his wife while you were slaving night and day for your useless father?
"You did," whispered Merope.
Who told you how to save Riddle's life when your brother hexed him? Who told you how to enhance the love potion to make it stronger than your silly Bethe could have imagined?
Merope swallowed hard. "You."
That's right, it agreed, still laughing. And best of all, Merope ... who planted the seed of doubt into your mind? Who suggested that Tom only loved you because of the potion?
"You did," she said impatiently, "but why? You went to all the trouble of encouraging and helping me get Tom. Why did you want me to stop the potion?"
I didn't want you to stop it, it replied slyly. I wanted you to need it more than ever.
And suddenly it all became clear. The locket had goaded her, implying that without the love potion she wouldn't be able to keep Tom. Out of pride and curiosity, she had stopped feeding Tom the potion to see what would happen. Merope remembered the panic she had felt at his cold expression, at his refusal to tell her he loved her back. She remembered running downstairs, craving the potion and the way Tom would hold her once she gave it to him. Giving it to him had become even more of an obsession after that night, after she had discovered how the true Tom really felt.
That was how Tom had stayed with her long enough to conceive their son, before she made the decision to release him.
Her mind was racing back over the events of the past year. Behind every important occasion, the locket had been there, whispering in her ear. She dropped it onto the floor with trembling fingers.
"Who are you?" she whispered, her heart pounding.
Why, Merope, it said with mock surprise, I should have thought you'd know me by now. Haven't you heard my name enough from the lips of that bastard you called a father?
"No..." She backed away into the corner as though it would bite her. "It can't be! You're just a locket!"
Is that any way to treat your dearest relation? Come and let your loving Salazar take care of you...
Merope kicked it clear across the room, holding her pounding head between her hands. She was going crazy, she felt sure of it. "Leave me alone!" she shouted.
Now why would I want to do that? You are my business now, Merope. Everything depends on you...
Before she fainted, Merope thought she saw the filmy white figure of a man emerge from the locket. He walked towards her, an ironic smile playing on his lips, and then the world disappeared from her eyes.
All that mattered was getting rid of the locket.
When November came again, cold and rainy, it was the only thought that occupied Merope's mind. She knew that it could read her feelings sometimes, especially when she felt saddest, so she guarded her thoughts as carefully as she could. Outwardly she was meek and obeyed the locket's every word without question; inside, she was plotting and fuming.
Why had she never questioned the locket? All this time it had been manipulating her. It had exploited her love for Tom to achieve its own ends: the creation of this child, which seemed to be of the utmost importance to it. She hated the baby even more. Sometimes she thought the locket and the baby were conspiring together. Merope felt like she was going mad. Her head hurt with impossible thoughts and she was constantly paranoid, afraid to sleep because she thought the locket was watching her. She was terrified of the bearded man with the cold eyes that saw right through her.
Nothing seemed significant anymore. She hardly cared when Mrs. Barry evicted her, demanding the rent she couldn't pay. She had sold her wedding ring months ago and everything she owned was gone. Except the locket...
She had taken to placing it in her dress pocket. It seemed like the only way she could stay sane, because she couldn't stand having it next to her skin anymore. The nights got colder and longer. Sometimes Merope had to wait until the shops closed before she could creep onto a doorstep or stairwell and sleep. A stolen blanket was her only source of warmth. The child inside her was always kicking, demanding food, but rarely could she find a stray Sickle to buy a bun or a potato.
One afternoon, when her frostbitten fingers and her cough seemed to be at their worst, Merope wandered through the streets looking for a jewelry shop. A couple standing in front of a bakery pulled their children close as Merope passed, but she ignored them. Down a dark alleyway, she found a potions shop with a blood red sign, a questionable-looking cafe, and a dusty bookshop. No jewelry store appeared and for a moment, she sagged with despair.
What do you want with a jewelry store? the locket's voice asked.
"I just want to ... look around," she answered lamely, knowing that depression made her more vulnerable to the locket and trying to cheer up. It didn't seem to be fooled.
You are thinking of selling me! it said furiously. I didn't think you'd have the nerve, you ungrateful little tramp!
Merope looked around desperately, trying to ignore the locket's tirade. It was then that she saw it: a dingy storefront with a deformed mannequin and a hippogriff head in the window. A large navy blue sign read "Borgin and Burkes" in faded gold lettering. She hurried over and examined the objects for sale, an electic mixture of odd and morbid items she couldn't imagine anyone wanting. It's worth a try, she decided.
I helped you! I took care of you! screeched the locket, and beneath its fury was fear.
The shopkeeper looked up when Merope entered the shop. He was a small man with a ruthless, intelligent face, advertising the fact that of the two who had founded this shop, he had the greater mind for business. His gaze swept over Merope with mingled disgust and curiosity. "Can I help you?" he asked in a gravelly voice.
"I would like to sell something," Merope mumbled.
"Caractacus Burke at your service," he replied, frowning as though he couldn't imagine wanting anything she possessed. "We make no promises to buy here at Borgin and Burkes, but I will assess the item for you free of charge. I will name a price if I'm interested."
Merope reached into her pocket and pulled out the locket. Immediately it became red-hot to the touch and she dropped it on the counter with a cry, cradling her burnt hand.
Mr. Burke didn't seem put off in the least. On the contrary, he bent and poked it with his finger so that it lay face-up. He pulled out a silver loupe and looked at the locket with it. He stayed in that position for so long that Merope began to grow nervous. Finally he raised his head. "Do you know what this is, girl?" he asked in a hushed, excited voice.
Look at this place! the locket was shrieking. You cannot leave me here, you stupid girl! You cannot!
Merope blinked at him. "It's a locket," she said quietly.
A satisfied smile spread across Mr. Burke's face, as though she had proven him right about something. "Quite right, my dear," he said condescendingly. "Well, well. And what are you prepared to accept for this locket of yours?"
You cannot sell me, you little harlot! I am priceless! Priceless, do you hear me?!
Merope thought for a minute. She had no idea what the locket was worth and she hoped Mr. Burke would not see this. "Whatever you are prepared to offer," she responded, trying to seem calm and knowledgeable.
"What do you say to ... five Galleons?" he suggested, studying his fingernails. He darted a glance at her.
"Five Galleons?" she repeated dumbly.
Mr. Burke's lips thinned. "Too little? What about seven Galleons, then?" Merope didn't answer. "Ten Galleons, then. That's my final offer, young woman."
You'll regret this, Merope Gaunt ... I will make you pay! Do you hear me? I will make you pay!
"Done," Merope said quickly. She caught the faintest flicker of astonishment on the shopkeeper's face and wondered if she should have asked for more. She knew so painfully little about money. Well, too late now, she thought, snatching the heavy gold coins he counted out for her.
You cannot escape me! the locket screamed at her. You can never hide from me!
"Have a good day, my dear," Mr. Burke said sardonically, flashing his yellow teeth at her.
Merope turned and left the shop without looking back once.
The pain began on the very last day of December.
Merope had slept all afternoon in a stairwell, trying to ignore the brief but persistent spasms of pain that had been shooting through her midsection. She woke with freezing cold legs and looked down to see that her dress was soaked through. She hardly had time to register this fact before she felt another heavy, cramping pain in her abdomen, stronger than what she had felt all day. "Oh!" she groaned, pressing her hands to the small of her back. It ended quickly enough and she gazed down at the wet fabric clinging to her legs, fearful that something was wrong. Her heart was pounding and she touched her stomach gingerly.
She wanted to find a warm place to wait for her dress to dry, but what place would be open tonight? She had slept the day away, knowing that it was the best cure for her pain and hunger. It was almost completely dark now. She got up and wandered back through Knockturn Alley, shivering in the cold. Several groups of people were huddled here and there, but no one troubled her. Something in the young woman's face kept them away.
Merope continued on and turned her face to the velvety night sky. It was the end of 1926. Tonight people would celebrate with their loved ones, toasting the start of a whole new year. She tried to imagine what Tom was doing now. No doubt he was in Little Hangleton, celebrating with his parents and their fancy friends.
Another cramping pain shot through her torso and Merope cringed, crying out loud. She held her breath and willed it to go away. It seemed to last even longer this time, radiating from her back as though something had punched her there. She felt sick to her stomach with fear. Was this childbirth? How soon before the baby came out? She wished desperately for someone to hold her hand and tell her that everything would be all right. But she was alone in a dark city, her breath hanging in the cold air like a ghost.
She walked on for some time, pausing whenever the pain coursed through her body, cursing the cold and the way it seeped into her bones. When she finally looked up, Merope realized that she had gone into an entirely unfamiliar part of London.
The dark shops looked gloomy, but down the street she could see the bell tower of an immense church. Somehow, she realized, she had made her way into Muggle London. Merope staggered in the direction of the church, but never quite made it. Immediately to her left was a large brick building where two women were talking. They stood in the open doorway, watching her approach.
"Hello there!" called one woman anxiously. "Are you all right?"
Merope threw herself on the steps. "Please ... help me," she moaned.
"Good God," said the other woman in a hushed voice. "She must be sick."
"Hannah, help me carry her inside," the first woman commanded.
Merope felt them raise her from the ground and walk her up the stairs. The warmth of the house felt like the most beautiful of kisses on her face. One of the women shut the door and they continued half-pushing, half-carrying her into a room off the main hall.
"She's not sick, Hannah," the first woman remarked suddenly. "She's giving birth."
"Good God," Hannah said again. "When do you suppose she ate or bathed last, Louise? She's positively filthy."
Louise looked down into Merope's face. "What's your name, child?"
"Merope Gaunt," she whispered, just as another racking pain tore through her body.
Louise shook her head. "You must breathe through each contraction. Don't hold your breath like that," she advised. "Hannah, help me take off her dress. She needs to be changed, she'll catch her death of cold in this wet gown."
The pain worsened as the night went on. For the first time in months, Merope wore clean clothes and lay on a bed, but she had never felt more miserable. Hannah and Louise took turns bathing her, all the while instructing her to breathe. Finally they had begun to tell her to push, but she simply had no strength left. "I can't," she sobbed, her forehead damp with sweat. There was a ceaseless weight in the core of her body, a primal urge beneath the pain, and despite her claim Merope pushed with all her might. Every now and then, Hannah or Louise would tell her to rest and she would lie back on the bed, weeping from sheer fright and pain.
"Tom," she whispered, as though the name were a balm for her suffering. "Tom, Tom..."
"Who is this Tom she keeps talking about?" whispered Hannah, wiping Merope's brow with a cool washcloth. "You don't suppose it's the father?"
"Must be," Louise agreed grimly. "No wedding ring on her finger. I see enough of these cases a week to lose all confidence with the world. Young girls taken advantage of and left to fend for themselves."
"No," Merope moaned, "no, I loved him, I did..."
"Whatever you say, child. Now push!" Louise commanded.
"This baby is much too big for her," Hannah whispered fearfully. "It will surely kill her, Louise, unless we can get a doctor at this hour of night..."
The other woman shook her head gravely. "It's too late now. Do you see how far along she is? She'll have to push no matter what - this baby wants to be born."
For hours, Merope alternately pushed and rested, pushed and rested, in an endless maddening cycle that made her want to die. How long would it go on? What if she lay here forever, bleeding to death? She wanted Tom so much, it was almost as painful as the birth itself. Had she not stopped the potion, even now she could be giving birth in the cottage by the sea with his arms around her, his voice reassuring her...
At last, she heard the women grow excited. "Push, Merope! One more push!" Louise cried urgently, and with her final push Merope felt all of the strength bleeding from her body. There was a great release, a brief silence, and then the shrill bawling of a baby.
"Congratulations, my dear," Hannah said with a weary smile. "You have a son."
It all seemed like a dream to Merope as the two women cleaned and fussed and laid the swaddled newborn beside her, still squalling with his face red as a tomato.
"This one came fighting into the world. He's a beautiful boy," Louise remarked gently, nudging the baby closer to Merope. "What will you name him?"
Merope looked into the face of her son for the first time. His black hair was matted against his head and his eyes were the deepest shade of blue she had ever seen. It was much too early to tell whether the baby resembled anyone, but she thought she could see Tom in his tiny, wrinkled features. "Tom, after his father. I hope he looks like his father," she whispered.
She pictured her husband's face and then quite unwillingly, the face of her father floated into her memory. Tom Riddle and Marvolo Gaunt - two men who had loved falsely, two men who had given their hearts only to snatch them back. Would this child follow in their footsteps? Would he ever love only to realize that it was all an illusion?
She felt so lightheaded, as though she were drifting above the bed watching this scene play out before her eyes. And when she said, "His name will be Tom Marvolo Riddle, for his father and grandfather," she was drifting even more. By the time they took the baby away and covered her lifeless body with a white sheet, Merope was in the air. She sailed right out of the window and into the endless night.
Behind her, she left a baby boy who stopped crying to stare up at the stars as though they were very beautiful to him, as though with one chubby hand he could grasp the universe.
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