Written for the Minerva_Fest on LiveJournal. With many thanks to my fabulous beta, Kelly Chambliss.
"Damn and blast," said the Headmistress, and she poured herself a double Firewhisky at four o'clock in the afternoon.
You may frown at this, for neither the language nor the alcoholic excess are examples for the students. But there were good reasons.
I should know.
I am that Headmistress.
By now it is nine o'clock, and my many duties are done. I am alone at last and able to take a good look at the situation.
What I would like to do, at this point, is Apparate to Amelia Bones and have a long talk that would probably begin with me saying, "What is wrong with men?"
To which Amelia would answer, "Apart from everything?"
Not that we were man-haters. Amelia was a lesbian and I am a confirmed spinster, but that's because of who we are, or, in Amelia's case, of who she was, not because we hadn't met the 'right' man. Not even because there is no such thing as a 'right' man - we have both known quite a number of very likeable ones. But occasionally one feels the need to vent one's irritations, and the dialogue I just described was our usual start to doing just that. Any career woman will understand what I mean.
There are other reasons I wish I could talk to Amelia right now. I could trust her completely, and solving mysteries was her daily work. Her advice would have been invaluable.
However, this is not to be. I will have to solve on my own the mystery that presented itself this afternoon. If what I think is true, it must remain an absolute secret. And I can't think of anyone who would not be tempted to break my confidence – either because they sincerely think it's for the best, or because they could make a great deal of money out of it.
For the subject of my investigation is Severus Snape, Potions Master, former Headmaster of Hogwarts, and Tragic and Misunderstood War Hero, as the Daily Prophet called him only last week.
Making money out of his situation is unethical. And I'm convinced it is not in his best interests to have 'his cover blown', as I believe the technical term is.
If I decide to publish these notes, it will be out of revenge. And revenge is a dish best eaten cold. Until I have fully made up my mind, I will therefore work alone.
Amelia would have been amused at the notion of me publishing a mystery story. She was the one who introduced me to Muggle detective novels. Amelia adored them. She was fascinated by the technical equipment the Muggle police has at its disposal, and she loved the description of Muggle investigation teams and how they worked together. "The one amazes by its strangeness, the other by its very familiarity," she used to say. She particularly enjoyed books where the main investigations officer was a woman. It is easy to see why.
While I like the older police stories well enough, I grew less enamoured with them in later years. The criminals are now mostly of the serial killer variety. Their crimes are explained by their unhappy childhood, an argument I don't quite hold with. And the authors usually write several chapters from the killer's point of view. Often chillingly well done, but not at all the sort of thing I enjoy reading after a long working day.
Amelia used to tease me that my preferences reflected my life just as much as her female inspectors reflected hers. And she had a point, for my favourite paper sleuth, Miss Marple, is not unlike me.
We are both elderly spinsters and we both like living alone. I would not mind retiring to just such a cottage as Miss Marple lives in – albeit with less gardening and more books. On other subject than the delights of gardening, however, I often agree with her point of view, and I think we might have got along just fine.
For those of you who are not familiar with Agatha Christie's work, Miss Marple lives in a small village and studies human nature, "which is much the same in a village as anywhere else," as she says herself. As a result, she is able to solve every mystery put before her. More often than not, however, she is hindered in her detective work by people who are convinced that she has led a very restricted life and therefore cannot possibly understand the situation.
You would be surprised how often I, too, have heard that the life of a schoolteacher, especially at a boarding school, must be very restricted.
It's complete and utter balderdash.
But if this restricted life of mine (in which I've fought in three wars, dealt with four Ministers of Magic, and manage an organisation with a large staff, a large budget, and extensive high-maintenance grounds and buildings), if this very restricted life of mine taught me one thing, it is that a day on which one doesn't have to listen to balderdash in some form or other is usually a day spent in blissful solitude.
Amelia often compared me to Miss Marple. "You were both born in the knife drawer – too sharp by half," she used to say. And, "your students would agree with me. You find your culprits exactly the way Miss Marple does: their deeds remind you of so-and-so."
I was sorry to see the Miss Marple series end. Amelia suggested I should write my own sequels. She even promised to buy them. But copyright would stop me from publishing, and if I were to invent my own elderly spinster, I'd have to invent the plot as well. I couldn't see myself managing that.
This is different. I will write down the plot as it presents itself to me. As to publication – we'll see.
Unless Severus Snape comes up with some exceptionally good excuses and reasons, I may do just that.
The last line of the previous section may have surprised my readers. The whole point of Severus Snape, Tragic War Hero, is not just that his life was tragic, but that his death makes it impossible for the Wizarding world to tell him how they feel about him now.
Let me put you in full possession of the facts.
It all started when Harry Potter came to my office. In the past seven years, countless things have started with Harry and his friends coming to my office. "Why is it always you three?" I once asked. A rhetorical question; every teacher knows there always is one and it's usually the same. This time, Mr Potter came alone. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Potter sat down, inquired after my health, and blurted out that he had come about Professor Snape's portrait. He is nothing if not straightforward.
I sighed, inwardly, of course. I had given the matter much thought ever since the first time I entered the Headmaster's office after learning the story behind Severus Snape's death.
You will recall that portraits of former Heads may, if the Head in question wishes it, be placed in the office from the day of their resignation. But they will change into Living Portraits only on the death of the subject. Most Heads sit for their portrait during their Headship. Some die in harness; their paintings are live ones from the moment they are placed on the wall. Albus Dumbledore is a case in point. Others hang silently for years, and then they suddenly wake up, often before the Owl announcing the subject's demise has reached the castle.
To return to Headmaster Snape, he did not leave a painting in a place where we could find it, and it seemed highly unlikely that he had sat for one. Had he lived, I doubted he would wish to be remembered for this particular year in his Hogwarts career.
When Potter made his request, I was perfectly aware that I had long passed the stage where I sincerely debated what was best. I was prevaricating. That had to come to an end, and Potter's visit was as good a reason as any.
The long and short of the matter was: Headmaster Snape had the right to have his portrait. I therefore agreed with Potter and told him so.
Potter then launched into a spirited argument as to why Professor Snape deserved his portrait. After several seconds, he realised that I had, in fact, agreed. He stopped in mid-sentence and stared.
"You agree?" he asked.
"Quite," I said.
"But, but …" he stuttered, "I thought everyone always hated Professor Snape. I thought no-one would want his portrait here."
Potter was wrong. True, there were people whose dislike of Snape had been absolute and openly expressed. Sirius Black is one, Potter himself is another. For which he was not entirely to blame; Severus more than returned the feeling, and violent antipathy is often mutual. In Potter's case, the older should have been the wiser, as I had told Snape on numerous occasions.
But Snape's colleagues had not always disliked him. We had certainly misunderstood both his motives and his actions since the death of Albus Dumbledore, and some of us – I must include myself – continued to do so until Potter gave us the full facts.
In requesting Snape's portrait, Potter did the right thing. His one fault is that he tends to believe he's the only one willing and able to do the right thing. During the Battle I had to remind him that his teachers were rather good at magic. This time I let him figure it out for himself.
"That's great," he said finally. "That's marvellous. Do I order one? With whom? I'll pay for it, of course."
His tendency to believe he is the only one who does things is really remarkably persistent. On the one hand, his desperately unhappy childhood may well have taught him to stand up for himself, because no-one would do it for him.
On the other hand, as I have said, I don't quite hold with the 'unhappy childhood' argument. There is much of his mother in Harry. She had the same tendency to want to make everything right – thoroughly laudable – and the same conviction that she and she alone could do so and knew how.
From everything Harry told about Snape, I've learnt that Lily did want to reform him. When she realised her friendship alone would not result in a personality transplant, they quarrelled, and she started on the reformation of James Potter. They became engaged the day after their last N.E.W.T. exam, and it is true that James never bullied Severus again. It is also true that, since they both left school, James never saw him again. Still, Lily felt she had succeeded in her project, and I know they were sincerely happy together.
Harry is very much a chip of the old block. I told him that I would order a painting from a reliable painter, who had experience with Living Portraits, had known Headmaster Snape (a rather important factor, since he'd have to paint from memory and a few snapshots), and who would be paid by Hogwarts and the Ministry.
Harry said "Yes, Professor" to all of these statements. When the matter of the painting was settled, we had tea.
A first meeting with a former student is always a bit uncharted territory. Both teacher and student have to get used to the new balance. But Harry and I parted most amiably. When he doesn't feel he has to save the world, he's pleasant and well-mannered company, and I meant it when I said I looked forward to his return – for he had promised to attend the unveiling ceremony.
The little ceremony took place today.
After seven years in which seeing Potter in my office had meant trouble, I did look forward to his visit.
How the Universe must have laughed.
At first all went very well. The portrait hung on the wall, carefully veiled. We chatted briefly of this and that, and then I suggested Potter unveil it. He was the only one present – I had insisted on that, telling Potter, "It's what Professor Snape would have wanted."
The thought that he might, indeed, consider a chat with Potter preferable to a chat with me was quite entertaining.
When Potter had removed the veil, we both stared at Snape's face. The likeness was pitch-perfect from his black hair to the hint of an ironic smile on his face. It was a bust, and while a bust cannot really loom, there was the suggestion of looming. And of billowing robes.
Also, the portrait was as dead as a doornail.
Investigation was necessary, and I did not mean to investigate in Potter's presence. I told him Living Paintings always needed a bit of time.
Potter then mentioned that the eyes followed one through the room already. So do the eyes in good Muggle paintings, but I was glad to agree with him. And, to give him his due, he may not have seen any good Muggle paintings unless his uncle and aunt took him to museums, which seems highly unlikely.
Potter and I had a small glass of mead together, and I could see that having a drink with his former Head of House did more to make him feel grown up than the two months of Auror training behind him. Then he left.
I started to investigate the portrait. I hoped there would be some oversight on the part of the painter.
There was not.
The painting was excellent, the spells were all in place, and the ritual had been completed. I was looking at a superb Living Painting that was dead.
I checked everything again. You do, just as you look in every possible place when you've lost something, and then look again; knowing full well it will not be there.
And there we have the true starting point of my investigation, and the moment where I first thought of Miss Marple. "You will find that the most obvious conclusion is often the right one," she says on various occasions.
Some people would argue that it's not the fictional character but the author speaking. An author who wants to explain why there is, yet again, a novel in which the husband or wife did it. But I like to think that the author needs to explain this to her younger readers.
Women who have lived as long as Jane Marple and I know it's true. Young people don't. They think the most unlikely tale is the convincing one.
Amelia agreed with me when we compared notes on the subject. In my work, it's homework eaten by the kneazle. In hers it's Granny's funeral. In both cases, the obvious reason is the true one, and the clichés are merely boring. The only tale that truly stood out over the years involved an owl, a Thestral iand/i a Mermaid, and it was exceedingly well told. I was sorry when the story ended.
So was the culprit.
If Sirius Black had done his homework with all the dedication he devoted to its neglect, he could have gone very far indeed.
In the Case of the Silent Portrait, there was only one obvious conclusion. The Living Portrait was dead because the subject was alive.
At which point I swore, examined the facts, and had the whisky.
For the one undeniable fact that sprang to mind was this: Severus Snape's body had never been found.
"Dear, sweet God," I finally said. I hadn't meant it as a last test, but when the portrait didn't say, "No, just Severus," I knew it was dead, all right.