Chapter 5: An Unexpected Guardian~ ~ ~
As Dumbledore had predicted, the pub was empty of patrons as they entered. Edmunds stood behind the counter, drying glasses, but he seemed not to notice neither Dumbledore sitting by the window nor Snape and Hope entering the pub.
‘You put enchantments on the place,’ Snape concluded.
‘I most certainly have,’ Dumbledore replied merrily and pulled out two chairs. ‘I prefer to converse privately with the two of you.’
‘Privately?’ Snape cocked an eyebrow. ‘You do realise that the Ministry will have been alerted by now, don’t you? In a few moments’ time, the pub will be crawling with Aurors.’
But Dumbledore didn’t seem to worry.
‘Did I forget to mention that the Auror on duty today is an old friend of mine? I have been assured that a little bit of magic will go quite unnoticed today. Now, sit, both of you. Tea or brandy?’ he asked, conjuring first three glasses out of thin air and then an entire tea set, carrying the Hogwarts coat of arms.
Snape’s eyes darkened. Trust Dumbledore to bend the rules. Was there anything he couldn’t get away with?
‘This is a very nice little pub,’ he mused, smiling benignly at Hope as she took a seat beside him. ‘And is that apple crumble I smell?’
‘I hardly think you came here in order to admire the decor or to have pudding,’ Snape snapped. ‘And if I recall correctly, you were about to give us some explanations.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ Dumbledore replied, steepling his fingers in front of him. ‘Where to start?’ he pondered aloud. ‘Where to start?’
‘How about you start with telling us how you came to know about Hope’s… Miss McKibben’s whereabouts?’ Snape suggested impatiently. Dumbledore’s circumlocutions were making his bile rise.
‘Ah, now that, dear Severus, is a very good suggestion. If you must know, one of my sources was a member of your House and a dear friend of yours, Nadezhda. You don’t mind me calling you Nadezhda, do you?’
Hope almost imperceptibly shook her head, and Snape frowned. Charles Herrington’s memory had been erased. He couldn’t have tattled. Or had the spell not worked?
‘As you might recall, Severus’ Dumbledore continued, ‘Mr Herrington sought my permission to visit his parents after Christmas despite previously deciding to stay at Hogwarts in order to catch up on his studies. As you also might recall, the boy blushed easily and had no talent for lying whatsoever. Also, he cared deeply for you, Nadezhda, and was very worried. He only had your best interests in mind when he decided to tell me about your plans.’
‘And you simply let those plans be carried out?’ Snape questioned.
‘I thought it unwise to get involved. For the time being, that is,’ Dumbledore explained. ‘After all, said plans had been carefully crafted, and if I am honest, I was curious to see how they would pan out. However, when Mr Herrington returned to Hogwarts in January, with seemingly no recollection whatsoever of where he had spent the last two weeks, I did grow slightly concerned.’
‘Slightly?’ Snape hissed, finding it increasingly harder to control his temper. ‘One of your students returns to Hogwarts with his memory erased and another one is missing somewhere in Muggle Britain and you grow slightly concerned? I am starting to think that Lucius was right a couple of years ago. You are losing your touch!’
‘Now, now, Severus. Discovering how perfectly the charm had been performed, I didn’t have any reason to believe that Nadezhda was in any kind of trouble. After all, we are talking about a very bright young witch. I assumed that she wouldn’t have cut bonds with her best friend unless she was absolutely certain that she would do just fine on her own. Am I not correct, Nadezhda?’
‘I didn’t want anyone to know where I was, including Charles,’ Hope confessed. ‘It was the only thing that mattered at the time.’
Her voice was calm, and she was sitting with her back straight. She had wrapped her fingers around her tea cup, and Snape couldn’t help but wonder if she was doing so in order to keep her hands from shaking. Dumbledore, however, did not seem to have noticed.
‘You did very well,’ he praised her instead. ‘It took me months to find you. Had it not been for the birth of your child, I might never have.’
‘How do you know about my boy?’
‘The birth of every magical child is automatically recorded,’ Dumbledore explained. ‘I assume you did not know.’
Hope shook her head. She was holding on to her cup with such force now that her knuckles were turning white, and her face was so pale that Snape feared that she would faint at any moment.
‘Only a few people know about the Book of Admittance,’ Dumbledore continued. ‘It is a powerful magical artefact in its own right, charmed by the founders of Hogwarts themselves. The only ones who have access to it are the residing headmaster and his deputy. I can, however, assure you that not even Professor McGonagall had seen that specific entry, and with your son’s death, the record of his birth was erased from the pages of the book. No one knows that the boy ever existed. And thus, no one knows where he was born or where you are.’
With a sigh of relief, Hope closed her eyes before burying her face in her hands, and Snape, too, relaxed. He knew about the Dark Lord’s plans to gather information about any magical births in the country to seek out and persecute Muggle-borns. Once Dumbledore was dead, it would only be a matter of time until he’d gain access to the Book of Admittance. Surely, he would want to hunt down the one that slipped through his fingers. But thankfully, there was now no record of Nadezhda McKibben’s child, and she herself was safe once more.
‘It was thanks to the Book of Admittance that I was able to trace you,’ Dumbledore continued. ‘I checked up on you occasionally and found that you had been doing quite well. Until the day your child expired, that is. That day, I saw you break, and that was the day I decided to reveal myself.’
Hope looked up from behind her hands, frowning. It was clear that she was trying to remember Dumbledore’s appearance, but as she had told Snape that very afternoon, she had no recollections whatsoever of the time after the death of her child.
‘You were in quite a state, my dear,’ Dumbledore explained. ‘I considered taking you to St. Mungo’s but deemed that a wizard hospital was not the best place for you to be. So I brought you here and made sure that you were taken care of by the right people. The police officers that took you to the hospital were in fact two Aurors and Nurse Edmunds… well, Elisabeth was a Squib.’
‘A Squib?’ Snape asked incredulously.
‘Of course,’ Dumbledore replied, sounding as if it were the most natural thing in the world. ‘As you are well aware, Squibs are looked upon with a certain degree of… disdain, and quite a few of them have chosen to settle here, in the only place in Britain that has never seen any magic. That Elisabeth Edmunds was on duty the night Nadezhda was brought to the hospital was, of course, a coincidence , but I welcomed it nonetheless. I deemed it wise to have her keep an eye on the girl, in case she happened to produce any kind of magic – intentionally or accidentally. Elisabeth would understand and make sure no one else noticed. Thankfully, she never needed to.’
Snape sat as if dumbstruck. He could barely believe what he was hearing and at the same time he was not even surprised. This was Albus Dumbledore talking, after all, one of the most brilliant and cunning wizards alive. If anyone could have found Nadezhda McKibben, find her, make sure she was taken care of and then disappear again without her leaving any trace, it was him.
Hope, too, seemed puzzled, and when she finally spoke, her voice was so feeble that it was hard to make out her words.
‘Why… How come I don’t remember any of this?’ she asked. ‘Why don’t I remember you?’
‘You were not well, my dear,’ Dumbledore replied with a gentle tone. ‘Your grief and guilt were tearing at your very soul. I feared that you were a danger to yourself. Thus, I decided to ease your burden.’
‘You used a Memory Charm on her,’ Snape stated.
‘I didn’t do so lightly,’ Dumbledore defended his actions. ‘Meddling with someone’s memory is not always the best of choices, and I did not know if it would do any good. After all, Nadezhda, your darkness festered in your heart and not in your mind. And that pain I could not take away. It is there to this very day, isn’t it?’
Hope did not answer. Her hands still covered half her face, and her green eyes were staring blankly ahead. Snape doubted that she even saw Dumbledore. He, however, glared angrily at the old man.
‘I think Miss McKibben has heard enough for today,’ he pointed out.
He rose from his chair, and for the second time this afternoon, he gently put his hand on her shoulder.
‘Come,’ he simply said, and as Dumbledore didn’t protest, he carefully guided Hope out of the pub. Edmunds had retreated to the kitchen, and he never saw the door that led upstairs open as if by magic. He neither saw Snape and Hope walk up the stairs, nor did he see Dumbledore vanish into thin air. As far as he was concerned, his pub had been empty for over an hour.
Hope didn’t speak nor look at Snape. Her steps were steady, and she was once more keeping her back straight. But Snape wasn’t easily fooled. He could see how she was trying to hide her shaking hands in the folds of her dress and how she flinched at the faintest sound.
‘It is alright to be upset,’ he said softly as he pulled out a chair for her in her room, the same chair he had sat on a few weeks ago. He in turn positioned himself by the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dumbledore as the headmaster walked away. He wanted to see him leave. He wanted to be sure that the old meddler had gone. But the fog had grown even thicker, and Snape couldn’t make out anything through the window.
‘I should have known,’ Hope said after a while. ‘I should have understood.’
‘What should you have understood?’ Snape asked.
‘That I wasn’t alone.’
Snape frowned. From the tone of Hope’s voice, he couldn’t tell whether or not she was happy about that fact, and he figured that her sentiments could go either way: she could be grateful for Dumbledore’s continuous protection or disappointed that she had not been able to keep her whereabouts secret from the Wizarding world.
‘This was Elisabeth’s dress, you know,’ she continued, tugging at the hem of her sleeve. ‘She gave me a lot of things. Clothes, books, hairbrushes and ribbons. But most of all, she gave me a home. I don’t know where I would have gone, if she hadn’t taken me here once I was released from the hospital. I don’t think I could have gone back to the cottage. Not after my boy…’
She broke off and looked up at Snape, frowning.
‘Do you think Elisabeth only took me in because Dumbledore asked her to?’
‘I do not know,’ he replied, but as he saw the crestfallen look in Hope’s eyes, he quickly added something else.
‘I can tell that Edmunds has grown very fond of you. I assume his wife did as well. Do her reasons for taking you in really matter today?’
‘No. I guess not.’
Hope exhaled audibly, brought her hands to her face and rubbed her eyes before squeezing them shut and letting her fingers trail through her dark hair. She bent her head and rubbed her neck, rolled her shoulders and then straightened up before taking a couple of steadying breaths.
‘None of it matters,’ she said softly. ‘These things happened half a lifetime ago. Maybe it’s time to let them go.’
When she looked up at him, Snape could do nothing but gasp. He had expected to see many things in her green eyes. Tears, confusion, even anger, but he had not expected to see the ghost of a smile reflecting in them. It was as fleeting as a shooting star, gone in a heartbeat but just as mesmerising and precious. And Snape could only hope that one day, it would linger.
‘How is the girl, Severus?’
Snape carefully closed the door behind him, fighting the urge to slam it shut with such force so it would fly of the hinges. He would keep his temper, he had promised himself on his way up to the headmaster’s study. He would listen to what anything else Dumbledore had to say, listen and try to understand. But as the old man now sat behind his desk, looking ever so relaxed and pleased with himself, Snape found it hard to keep the poisonous tone out of his voice.
‘Why would you ask me that?’ he snapped. ‘It seems to me like you know all about Miss McKibben.’
Dumbledore just smiled.
‘Now, now, Severus. Have a seat. Tea?’
Snape turned down the tea but did sit down opposite Dumbledore, who took his time pouring himself a cup, adding milk and sugar. He seemed in no hurry whatsoever, and Snape struggled to keep his calm.
‘Did you even for a moment stop to consider how startling your sudden appearance today would be?’ he demanded to know after a couple of minutes of silence.
‘I did indeed,’ Dumbledore replied. ‘I have considered revealing myself for many years but refrained from doing so just because I was afraid that Nadezhda wouldn’t take it well. After all, she has been quite convinced that no one knew where she was.’
‘Then what made you change your mind today?’
‘The fact that you were with her, of course.’
Snape frowned. He had suspected that Dumbledore’s appearance that afternoon had been well-timed and not a mere coincidence, but so far, he had not been able to figure out how the headmaster had known that he had been there.
‘I assume you have a spy at the pub,’ he suggested. ‘One of the Aurors, perhaps?’
‘Dear Severus, give yourself some credit. I am quite convinced that you managed to avoid being seen by any Auror. I know you have the means to disappear into the shadows, even without magic.’
‘There is no need to flatter me, Albus. Tell me how you knew that I was at the pub.’
‘Well, I did not know for certain that you were there today. I hoped you would be, but I could not know for sure. As little as I can know that you went there all those nights and weekends when you couldn’t be found anywhere in the castle. You could, of course, have been summoned by Voldemort this afternoon, but I decided to take a chance.’
Snape exhaled through his nose and exaggeratedly clenched and unclenched his fist. Dumbledore was a genius, there was no doubt about that, and he certainly had a talent to make people lose their temper with his opaqueness.
‘How did you know that I use to frequent this particular pub?’ Snape now asked slowly, weighing every syllable so Dumbledore would not have a chance to give yet another ambiguous answer.
‘Well, dear boy, I happened to see you once.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Well, not in the pub, but in Nadezhda’s… Hope’s room. And quite frankly, for a moment I was concerned that you might have noticed me as well.’
At first, Snape was intrigued, but as Dumbledore leaned back in his chair, smiling ever so smugly, Snape’s eyes darkened once more. He was not in the mood to play games, and if Dumbledore now made him guess on how he had knowledge of whatever happened in Hope’s room, Snape would be sorely tempted to throw an Unforgivable curse at him. Luckily for the headmaster, however, he provided an explanation.
‘The candle, Severus. The candle on the nightstand and the painting behind it. Didn’t you notice anything?’
Snape frowned. He had thought that he seen both candles flicker when he had entered the room, both the one that Hope extinguished and the one in the frame. But surely, it couldn’t be!
Yet Dumbledore nodded.
‘I have a similar painting,’ he explained pointing towards the opposite wall. ‘During the day, it is simply a painting among others. Quite small and not much for the world to see. Most people think it to be Muggle painting, since the flame never moves and the wax never melts. But when darkness descends, the painting springs to life, and the flame begins to flicker.’
‘When darkness descends?’ Snape inquired. ‘Darkness… of the mind?’
‘When Hope lights her candle,’ Snape concluded.
‘Yes, when Hope lights her candle,’ Dumbledore confirmed. ‘At first, it was Elisabeth who lit it on my orders. Someone had to watch the girl at night, whisper to her when her nightmares threatened to tear her soul apart. It was meant to be a temporary solution, a tool to be cast aside once it wasn’t needed anymore. But then Elisabeth died and Hope kept lighting the candle.’
‘What is it she is still afraid of?’ Snape asked, his annoyance with Dumbledore all but blown away. This wasn’t about Dumbledore. This was about a seventeen-year-old girl who had been scared to a point where she had seen no other way out than to run. And now, half a lifetime later, she was running still.
‘Hope, Severus, is afraid of Nadezhda,’ Dumbledore answered gravely. ‘She is afraid of the things Nadezhda has seen, the things she has learned and the things she is capable of doing. She has locked her away, somewhere in a dark corner of her mind. Locked her away and tried to forget her. But like the night returns once the sun has set, Nadezhda returns with the darkness. And until the day Hope makes peace with her and accepts her with all her flaws and shortcomings, she will not be rid of her demons.’
‘She has struggled with those demons for the better part of her adult life,’ Snape pointed out. ‘Will she ever defeat them? How can she be helped?’
Dumbledore sighed and tilted his head, surveying the dark wizard in front of him with his friendly blue eyes.
‘Help can only be given to those who accept it, Severus. This is why I did nothing but watch for fifteen years.’
Snape held the headmaster’s gaze steadily and unblinkingly. He understood very well that the old man was not only talking about Hope. Yet he was glad when Dumbledore rose from his chair, for he had no desire to discuss his own demons that evening.
‘I think I’ll take Fawkes down to the grounds,’ Dumbledore announced, already extending his arm towards the phoenix that promptly took flight and landed on its master’s arm. ‘You may stay here, of course, Severus. For as long as you wish.’
Snape frowned, for a moment at a loss of what Dumbledore was talking about. Why would he want to stay in the headmaster’s study? But as he looked after Dumbledore as the headmaster approached the door, Snape’s eyes were drawn to the little painting on the opposite wall. A painting of a flickering candle.
He swallowed. For a moment, he contemplated to call Dumbledore back, but during the few seconds that it took him to cross the room, he understood that Dumbledore already knew that Hope had lit her candle. He had seen the flame flicker in the semi-darkness and chosen not to act. For he had decided that Hope was not his to protect any longer.
Hesitantly, Snape extended his hand and let his fingers trail over the wooden frame. He did not know how Dumbledore’s charm worked, but as he looked into the tiny flame, he could see the silhouette of a woman. Hope was standing by the window, gazing out over the lake, as she had done so many nights before. Her back was straight, and she held her head high, but Snape sensed clearly that it was nothing but pretence. If Hope were as strong as she looked, she would not be standing by the window. If she were as strong as she wanted the world to believe, she would not have lit the candle. Despite what she had said to him earlier, she wasn’t ready to let go, had not yet the strength to forget. Maybe she never would.
With a sigh, Snape lifted the painting off the wall, tucked it under his arm and descended to the dungeon. He would look out for Hope now, whisper to her at night and pray that she would sleep. He knew how it was to lay sleepless, unable to wake up from nightmares that did not only come at night and refused to leave in the morning. He’d do anything to spare her. But when he arrived in his study and mounted the painting on the mantel, the flame was quite still. He could see nothing in it, not even a shadow, and he thought that Hope must have gone to sleep. He could not know, of course, that there had been a knock on her door.