Eliza Bryce enjoyed her job, most days. The Riddles were honest folk, if a bit gruff, and if young master Tom (who wasn't so young anymore) drank far too much. They came from means, and as people of means, they had certain expectations about the way the world (their world, if she was honest) was supposed to work. Silver was to shine, linens were to be pressed, English was to be spoken as the King did, and tea was to steep for two minutes, forty-five seconds, not a moment more or less. But, as long as one abided by their rules, conformed to their world view, one could expect to be treated with professional decorum.
And if there were one thing about which Eliza was intimately familiar, it was the world view of the Riddle family. She maintained the household necessities, her father's sister was the family cook, and her grandmother had taken charge of Tom's early education. And since he'd come back from the war, even her brother Frank had come into the Riddles' employ, tending to their grounds and automobiles. As far back as anyone could remember, in fact, both sides of her family were employed by the Riddles. And had she had a child of her own, that child would also have been employed by the Riddles (she was nearly 35, however, and therefore doubted the possibility of this occurring).
One of Eliza's responsibilities was to place the weekly orders from the market in Chester. She enjoyed this respite from the pall that had settled over Riddle Manor. For all their quiet decorum, there was a distinct sadness about the Riddles, and there had been for the last seventeen years. For her part, Eliza blamed those horrible, troll-like Gaunts. Were she someone who believed in such things, she might have accused them of putting some manner of hex on the family. So it was good to get out; to take a drive along the Cheshire back roads, and then to spend some time in the city. The errand itself was a bit pro-forma since the war – one didn't have much in the way of choice when one's purchases were tracked by stamps in a ration book – but it was still an excuse, and she enjoyed her tea at the shop on Northgate St., even though she'd had to learn to drink it black.
It was there, in that tea shop, where Eliza first met that strange young man. He was as young as he was beautiful, and he was desperately young indeed, certainly not a day over 17. He walked through the door of the tea shop, head high, seemingly taking the measure of everyone inside. His eyes settled on Eliza for but a moment, and then flitted away suddenly, as if he wished not to be caught. As he walked toward the side of the room where Eliza sat, however, his demeanor grew more confident, and there was a bit of a smirk about the young man's face.
"Pardon me terribly," the young man said, "but do you know a place called Hangleton? I believe it's in the countryside nearby, but I'm not too familiar with Cheshire."
Eliza looked up, feigning surprise. She knew full well who was speaking with her, but was wary of anyone as self-assured as he was at that young an age.
"Is it Little Hangleton you're looking for, sir, or Greater Hangleton?"
The young man replied "Little Hangleton, I believe. I have some business there," and then smiled warmly, which made Eliza even more ill at ease. No one ever simply 'had business' in Little Hangleton, except with the Riddles. And since that nasty business with young master Tom and those horrible troll-people, no one ever had business with them, either. Eliza shifted in her seat, cleared her throat and looked downwards. This was a strange young man, indeed, and she'd best be circumspect with her words. She thought of the Riddles; images of them passed by her mind's eye clear as day. Then she thought of young master Tom. And for some reason she thought of the day he'd come home with a face full of pustules, and how it was shortly after this incident that he'd taken the queerest fascination with that Gaunt woman – what was her name? Ah, Merope. – and how poor Cecilia was just thrown to the side, discarded, like. What a sad, sad day that had been.
"May I sit down?" the young man asked. Eliza's first instinct was to curtly tell him "no you may not," but she thought that might be rude. This boy had traveled a distance, obviously. His accent and demeanor suggested a London upbringing, and if his business took him 200 miles from home, it must be important enough to allow him to sit. Besides, he wanted to hear about Little Hangleton. And Little Hangleton was home, and Eliza was proud of her home; of course she'd tell him everything. And certainly he'd want to know all about the Riddles, as they were the prominent family. She suddenly hoped his business could afford him an hour or two's conversation over a cuppa.
"Yes, please do. Shall I order us more tea?"
"No need, Miss Bryce," he replied. "I've already taken care of that." And as he said that, a server came by with a fresh pot and a cup for him, filling both of their cups before she left.
"So," the young man began, "who are the Riddles?"
"Well, sir, Eliza began, "They are the wealthiest and best-known family in Little Hangleton. Their money is so old that no one is entirely sure how they came about it, but they've managed it well, and now lead a life of quiet leisure in their grand manor. The gentleman of the house is a mister Thomas Riddle, and he lives there with his wife Mary and their son, poor young Tom."
"'Poor young Tom?' Why do you call him that?"
"If'n I'm honest, he isn't a bit young a'tall, anymore," Eliza answered, too desperate to relay this information to mind the King's English. "He's nearly 40. But I suppose t'keep him straight with his father, that's what we call him. Young Tom. And he's poor because, well, dearie me, but that's a story. I'm sure you don't want me to be talking off your ear, like."
"No, please, Miss. Do go on." This delighted Eliza, so much so that for a brief moment she began to wonder why she was so eager to relay this story. But that moment passed, and on she went.
"It all started with the pustules, see. No one else remembers them, but I saw him come into the house one day fit to be tied, going on about an awful man who attacked him with a bit of twig, and that he was now covered head-to-toe in pustules. I was certain he'd gone 'round the bend, but his skin'd been clear when he left the house that day. Next day, no one seemed to remember anything – not even young Tom – and Mrs. Riddle beat me good and proper-like after I asked about it, not that I didn't deserve it, mind, I certainly was being a silly little girl, but I'm quite certain of what I heard."
"If it helps at all, Miss Bryce, I believe you."
Eliza smiled at that, and blushed a little. She cleared her throat and continued. "I do know what I heard, thank you, mister – ?"
"My name isn't important right now, Miss Bryce. Please continue."
And no, the young man's name wasn't important at all. He could be any young man, but it was dreadfully important that she continue her story about poor young Tom.
"Yes, well, all was quiet for a bit after that. But then, about a month afterwards, young Tom comes down with the oddest fascination for the Gaunts. They're this family just outside of town. Well, actually, he wasn't so much fascinated by the family as he was by the daughter, Merope. She'd been left alone by her family for some reason or other, and master Tom starts going by to check up on her. Next thing we know, poor Cecilia's been chucked to the side, and a letter comes in from Tom saying the two of 'em have run off together to London! If that isn't the end! The next Lord of the Manor and the town tramp, run off together like they were joining the circus. Well, with the family she came from, that probably wasn't too far off."
"Tell me about her family, then," the young man asked.
"Of course, milord," Eliza responded quickly. "They're – well, there's just the one of 'em now, isn't there – it's a poor family. A very poor family. And not so's you'd want to help them out 'round Christmas, either, no, more's that you'd warn your kids off going near 'em. The father, he looked more like a diagram of Neanderthal Man than anything human I've ever seen. And the son – gone off his nut, that one. You'd see him sitting there on the ground, like, in front of his house, hissing at the ground as if the bloody snakes could make out what he's saying! I mean – begging your pardon, milord."
The young man smiled. "That's quite alright; I've been known to use an oath or two, myself. But what of the girl – Merope, I believed you said it was?"
"Much like the rest, but in female form, from what I saw. Beady-eyed, dirty, filthy thing with stringy hair and a pallor of grey about her. That hovel's not no place for a woman, so how she managed, I'll never know. Can't say's I blame her for jumping at the chance when a fine looking young man like Tom comes by, either. But then one day, a year and a half later he's back at the manor, in quite a state. He said it was like a nightmare from which he couldn't wake up, until one day he did, and he left her there inna family way. He felt just awful about it, but he said the thought of that creature giving birth was enough to send him 'round the twist. Cecilia'd long since moved on by that point, not that she'd've had anything to do with him, either. He came home to nothing, and he's spent the last seventeen years reliving that, thinking about what he could've had, and drinking himself legless. He used to be quite a fit young man, actually.
"Really? What did he look like?"
"He, well, he had the pronounced cheekbones, much like yours. Pale, but with dark hair and eyes, again, just like…"
"Like me, Miss Bryce?"
Eliza did a double-take. "Why yes, milord. He looked very much like you when he was your age."
"If I told you I was sixteen years old, would it help you guess my identity?"
Eliza thought a moment, then put her hand to her mouth. "My word. You must be young Tom's son!" she whispered, only half-believing it herself.
"Very good," the young man replied. "Now, if I am young Tom's son, and therefore his heir, what does that make me to the Manor, and to you?"
"That would make you the Manor's Lord, and my employer," Eliza said, nearly rapturously.
"Yes. Yes it would. Now, what time will you be serving supper tonight, Eliza?"
"Supper is at seven, and I'm certain young Tom would want to see you, my Lord."
"So he shall. Now then, I have need of your services tonight, Eliza. You shall take me in your motorcar to meet the last remaining Gaunt. Then, this evening, I shall come 'round for supper. Please do not set out another service for me, as I will have no need of it. As I enter, you will announce me as Lord of the Manor, introduce me to my father and grandparents as such, and then you shall run to the river Dee, fling yourself therein and drown. Do you understand?"
"Oh yes, my Lord. Shall we leave for Little Hangelton now? I'm parked close by."
Eliza's driving was distracted as she drove the two of them up Parkgate Road. She was terribly excited for the tasks she was given by the new Lord of the Manor, but hoped the Dee would not be too cold when she jumped in to die.