Snape first went back to his rooms, where he took a couple of deep breaths and attempted to center himself. He knew he should have been feeling a profound sense of calm; things with Jane were settled, at least for the immediate future. That should have eased his mind somewhat (if not his body, which seemed already to be anticipating seeing her again that night).
He supposed, anyway. But now that he had given way, he realized that the separation, when it came, would be more difficult, and no doubt uglier. It would be far harder, he reasoned, to terminate an affair of wild abandon than one conducted on a strict schedule. He had in as much admitted that he could not control himself, and he had no hope now of getting out without a significant amount of trauma, most likely to both parties. He resigned himself to this. What other options did he have? To break it off now would be wasteful.
But he was surer than ever that Jane was temporary, mostly because she seemed to be sure of that as well. And that did ease his mind. Their opinions ran oddly alike with regard to their obsession with each other. Jane was proud and stubborn, but he realized she was ultimately very sensible. She, as well as he, believed their attraction was ephemeral, and doomed to perish. Thus he felt he did not have to worry about her becoming solicitous of a more permanent or public arrangement, which was impossible for any number of reasons. For both of them, he assumed.
It was just the manner in which it would perish that was in question, and Snape highly doubted that they would both grow tired of each other at precisely the same moment. Strangely enough, he wished that she would weary of him first, as he was sure he could be more stoic about her rejection than vice-versa. He even vowed to convince himself that he would welcome it.
Because he held in his hand his future. A scroll from Roland Gash. Slowly he unrolled it.
Would you be willing to share my company this afternoon? I make a monthly trip to Blackthorne (the estate in Cumbria of which I have spoken) to walk about the grounds and the house, and briefly supervise the house-elves. I will arrive at two (the light fails early this time of year), and I would enjoy your good fellowship as I inspect the estate, if it is your wish.
I will be provided with supper there, good, solid British food, and beer and wine. Pansy will be preparing my favorite roast bone marrow and parsley salad, and roast middlewhite. I personally am not fond of vegetables save for mash, but I will have runner beans on hand as well, in case you are of a mind. There will be a seasonal blancmange and spiced fig for dessert.
I will be there to walk the grounds and take supper regardless, but I would prefer your company to solitude. I have enclosed an Apparition Leaf to aid you in your travel, if indeed you can pleasure me with a visit.
R. P. Gash
Snape fingered the Apparition Leaf. On it was a vivid color picture of Blackthorne, along with the address: Blackthorne. Windermere, Cumbria. He need only concentrate on the picture when he Apparated, and he would wind up precisely at its gates.
And what a picture. Blackthorne was an imposing castle-like estate of grey stone. It reminded him of Hogwarts, on a much smaller scale. “Only” seven bedrooms, Gash had said. But no doubt there would be an enormous library, a conservatory, a keeping room, a formal dining room, an expansive kitchen, a billiards room and at least two parlors. Though he had grown up in utter poverty, Snape had been to Malfoy Manor several times, and he had no doubt that Gash’s country estate exceeded Malfoy’s permanent residence. He found himself smiling, imagining the grand party he might host, wherein he would spend the bulk of his time watching Malfoy pull his jaw up off the floor. The very idea that this manse could soon be his boggled his mind. Snape thought for a moment of his ancestral home, the tiny, dim cottage at Spinner’s End, stuffed to the rafters with books, creaky furniture, and terrible memories, and all of a sudden he looked very much forward to visiting with Roland Gash. Perhaps it would help him regain some of his former perspective where Jane was concerned.
He told himself that no matter how enticing he found Jane, there were many pleasures in this world beyond those of the flesh. Lasting pleasures, not merely ephemeral ones. He sent off an owl to Gash, indicating that he would arrive at 2:30 p.m. precisely, and would very much enjoy walking the grounds, as well as supper. Snape sailed through the next few hours, thinking that this might just be the best day he’d had in years. Jane in the morning, Jane at night, and in between, a brisk winter walk, good food, and intelligent Slytherin company. Not to mention that his future might soon be assured. Snape thought idly of bringing the contract to Blackthorne, and signing it there. He and Roland Gash could share a drink in both their honors. No doubt his port was far better than the swill Umbridge had procured for him.
But something stopped Snape from bringing the contract, he knew not what. No need to rush, he told himself again. Especially not when he was, perhaps for the first time in his life, in a position where he could enjoy the ride.
At 2:25 p.m. Snape was moving quickly across the Hogwarts grounds. Just outside the gates, he fingered the Apparition Leaf, closed his eyes, and concentrated. When he opened them, he was at the gates of Blackthorne, starkly beautiful against the winter sky. Roland Gash was waiting for him.
“Ah, Snape! Well met!” he said happily, clapping him on the shoulder and taking his hand. The two men set off.
The estate was located on fifty acres, most of which was taken up with sprawling gardens of various sorts, punctuated by copses of evergreen and birch trees. Even in the winter, there was a certain pleasant austerity to the place, and Snape could only imagine what the house and its gardens would look like in summer. Gash led him through a valley which he insisted would be covered in bluebells come spring, and then (more interesting to Snape) a bog garden. After that there was a small pond with an inviting grotto, on the banks of which stood a summer house, next to which what seemed to be a vegetable garden (lying fallow of course), and a Victorian potting shed. Then, of course, there were the formal gardens adjoining the house.
And what a house it was. After the tour of the grounds, Gash showed him around Blackthorne. If anything, Snape had underestimated it, as it contained not only every single room he had imagined, but also its own dungeons, wherein was housed a huge wine cellar.
The tour had taken quite awhile, but Gash kept them moving and entertained Snape with various stories about Ministry personnel, many of them involving Umbridge, and most of them very humorous.
At seven, they sat down to supper, not in the dining room but in the cozier keeping room, where a house-elf named Pansy (one of the two that came with the house) had set up a table. Gash had excellent taste in wine. By the end of the meal they had each had drunk a bottle of Chateau Montrose. It was an utter miracle of a wine and Snape grew a bit warm and even merry.
Though chatty before the meal, Gash didn’t say much during most of it, other than to offer little tidbits of information about the food itself, or the odd referral to the excellence of the stocked wine cellar. In part Snape knew this was because he was a man that enjoyed good food, and did not want to be too much distracted. But for the other part Snape knew that Gash was softening him up. Gash knew that a man plied with good wine and roast meat tended to relax, and would thus be more open to persuasion. And about this Gash was correct.
Snape found himself admiring the man, and thought it no wonder that he had become so rich and so powerful. He was, to be frank, charming, and forceful and fiercely intelligent as well, all of which was tempered by a very healthy concern for the welfare and advancement of him and of his own. What Snape most admired was the fact that he was so secure in his superiority that he did not feel the need to lord it over others, mostly because he knew his position towered over theirs. Malfoy and Umbridge were ants to him, ants squirming in the dust. To parry with them would have been to sink to their level. The only person he had truly sought to avoid and of whom he had perhaps been afraid was Voldemort.
Finally, the house-elf came to clear the dinner dishes.
“Pansy, this meal was, I think, the best you have ever made,” Gash said. “I offer my humble thanks.”
He nodded at the house-elf, whose face immediately erupted into a huge, wrinkled grin.
“Oh, thank you, master!” she said, bowing deeply, “Pansy is happy to please!” She backed out of the room, the plates piled rather wobbily in her arms.
“Dessert, master, will be even better!” she enthused, as Gash smiled after her.
“Such a little thing,” Gash reflected to Snape when she was gone, “to show a bit of kindness to one’s slaves. She’ll be yours, if you wish, of course. She looks old, but she’s got several decades of service left in her, trust me. Give her a good word now and then, and only strike her when she really deserves it, and she’ll serve you very well.
“Porthos is the other elf,” Gash added. "Does the work around the grounds. Quite a job, even at this time of year. He’ll keep your gardens, and plant and sow whatever you like. Mandrake, rupturewort, shivering pepper, as you please. House-elves are better than Herbologists for growing things.”
Snape nodded, feeling that at last the time had come for Gash to mention his most pressing agenda, and the real reason he had invited Snape to Blackthorne. And Snape was right.
Gash leaned in. “You’ll pardon my eagerness, Professor Snape, but I do feel compelled to ask. Are you inclined to sign the contract anytime soon?”
Snape put down his fork and knife and dabbed at the corner of his mouth with his napkin. He needed to frame his next words extremely carefully.
“I am enormously flattered, Mr. Gash…”
“Roland, please,” Gash interjected.
“Roland,” Snape continued, slightly uncomfortable at being asked to use Gash’s given name. “And I know for a fact I could not marry into a better family or situation, nor find a more well-bred and clever wife.”
Gash nodded, and his face lost just a hint of its eagerness.
“But I was wondering why you seem so eager to accomplish this now, and so very quickly,” Snape said. “Princilla is still my student, and though she has reached majority she is still very young. Why not wait until she graduates? Or even after? Why not wait…”
Long enough for me to tire of Jane, however long that might be.
Gash looked down, clearly unsettled, though Snape sensed it had nothing to do with him precisely.
“She is a lovely girl, my Princilla,” Gash began, softly. “There are a hundred wizards who would be eager to be her consort, and not merely for the power and the money. She’s young and beautiful. And intelligent.”
At this he looked up at Snape, and Snape saw for the first time how much Gash loved his daughter, and how fiercely protective and possessive he was of her.
“She is indeed,” Snape said.
Gash nodded. “Ah, but she is a spirited girl, as well. And prideful. She is not the sort of girl who could be happy married to an inferior.”
To this Snape said nothing, thinking that Gash knew his daughter well.
“It is not wrong for me to want to choose her mate! I know her better than she knows herself! You have been her teacher for seven years. Who better to be her consort? Who would be more solicitous of her welfare? Only I myself!”
Gash looked down again.
“And if her marriage brings an alliance that I would favor, that is an advantage as well,” he murmured.
Again, Snape said nothing, and there was a long silence, during which Snape wondered how he would again pose the question that Gash had not yet answered. Why now?
Finally Gash cleared his throat. “I have heard that you have grown rather friendly with Remus Lupin...” he said.
Snape tensed. He did not have to be a Legilimens to know what the older man was implying.
“Don’t be offended,” Gash said quickly. “It matters not to me how any man or woman chooses to gratify themselves. It is none of my concern. I merely wish you to know that if that is your tendency that it has nothing to do with our possible arrangement.”
Snape’s entire body was rigid. “It is not my tendency,” he corrected.
Gash shook his head slightly. “I meant no insult, Professor Snape…”
“And I take none. Lupin is a colleague, and his paramour provides me with free beer,” he said. “I do not prefer men.”
Gash nodded slowly. “I’d actually prefer that you did…” he trailed off. “Not that it’s a requirement of course.”
This shocked Snape into silence for a bit. “Why?” he asked at last.
Gash looked at him with a weary trace of a smile on his face. “What fathers wish for their daughters is a man that treats her with affection and respect. This seems to me more likely when there is a foundation of something akin to friendship, not the whims of Cupid. Sexual love has its place, but you must agree that it’s a force for chaos. Even dangerous.”
Snape was quiet for a moment. “Yes, I can see that,” he said.
“I have only the example of my own marriage to prove this.”
Snape sat perfectly still, listening. Now, it would come out. Where was the wife? Where was Princilla’s mother?
Gash chuckled bitterly. “No doubt you've been wondering where she is, and why you haven't once met her in the past seven years."
Snape made a vaguely encouraging sound, realizing quite rightly that open curiosity might have stifled Gash's desire to talk.
"We lead rather separate lives," Roland Gash continued. "She appears when she wishes to. Usually when she needs money. Most of her time is spent in London. I have a house there. Not the largest, but…the location offers her an opportunity to pursue her interests.”
Snape did not ask what her interests were. The fact that they excluded Roland Gash and their daughter told him all he needed to know.
“I loved her. I married her. She is uninterested in our child. Uninterested in me, in the end.”
Snape did look at him then, and there must have been a trace of pity in his eyes.
“Oh, don’t be sorry, Professor Snape. I learned my lesson,” Gash insisted. “I have a mistress I’m quite fond of. She keeps me content. And there’s no thought of love or marriage to muck things up. We have a healthy respect and affection for each other. But…no love.
“Love,” Gash repeated, obvious disgust in his voice.
Suddenly, Snape understood. Completely and wholly. Suddenly, he understood.
“Princilla is…in love….” he said.
Gash nodded, his face a mask of discontent.
“With a male you do not favor…”
“Which is why you are so intent upon the contract.”
Still another nod.
Snape pursed his lips for a moment, wondering. “If she’s in love with this other man, how did you get her to sign it?”
Gash raised an eyebrow. “Well, I tricked her of course! She would not admit to me that she has feelings for this boy, wouldn’t say a thing, which I fully understand, considering. I used her reticence against her.”
Gash took notice of the look on Snape’s face before he continued.
“Oh, don’t be offended, Professor. She has a healthy affection for you as well. You may not have noticed it, because she is capable of hiding it well, but she has. For years, in fact. I could not have persuaded her to sign the contract otherwise. This infatuation is fairly new.”
Snape thought for a moment, letting the idea that Princilla had “affection” for him sink in. “If you don’t mind me asking,” Snape began carefully, “who is the boy?”
Gash let out a short, barking laugh. “It doesn’t matter. As I said she refuses to admit it to me. But I know. And I won’t have it, I tell you. I won’t have it!”
At this Gash pounded his fist on the table, which toppled over his wine glass and sent it rolling to the stone floor, where it shattered.
Pansy came in immediately, and as Gash sat there glowering in silence, she cleaned up the shards.
Finally, after the room was quiet for a long time, Gash put his head in his hands.
“It’s...Malfoy,” he said, utterly disgusted. “Draco Malfoy.”