The Sugar Quill
Author: Sigune (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Mirror Mirror  Chapter: Part II: Together
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MIRROR MIRROR

Mirror Mirror

 

Part I: Together

 

They had met when she was in her mid-twenties and he was nearing forty, an unattractive man with a forbidding look on his face, not much of a future in the Squad and not a Knut to his name. His elder sister had inherited the shop and he had quarrelled with her, just as he quarrelled with most, over a matter of personal principle. They were no longer on speaking terms. He was bitter and rather lonely, because he had a habit of being frank that didn’t sit well with most people, as he had little tact in expressing his opinions. His ineptness at social intercourse put people off, even if they felt he had the right ideas. It was the kind of thing that hindered his career, too. He did not know how to flatter and fawn, and even if he did have those skills, it was not in his nature to use such subterfuge in order to reach his aims. He was honest to the core. He believed in what was right. And he wanted to be judged according to his merit, not his money or social station or lack thereof. And so he remained where he was, at the bottom of the Hit Wizard hierarchy, because at the Ministry of Magic only the rich and well-born could get away with ‘unpleasantness’, which was the general term for anything that resembled a critical attitude.

She – she was well-born, and beautiful, if no longer rich. Why she singled him out, he could never understand. He remembered how she looked in 1959, at the Ministry party where he had seen her first, in those dark blue silken robes that set off the whiteness of her skin. He remembered the blue rose in her long black hair, and the dark eyes that had spotted him where he stood awkwardly in a corner with in his hand a drink he didn’t really want. He remembered thinking: No, she’s looking at Rookwood, she must be. But she was looking at him, not impudently, as some flirtatious woman would, but modestly, in a quiet, honest way, or so he thought. His face must have betrayed astonishment, and she smiled and looked away, blushing slightly.

Old Hector Bones had introduced them to each other, at her request; Septimia (the strange name rang a bell, but he could not tell where he had heard it before) was his foster-daughter. He could not for the life of him recall what they talked about that night, nor what was said on the few other occasions at which they met afterwards. He supposed there must have been some form of chaste courtship, some sweet words whispered and some confessions made, because within a month’s time they had pledged vows at a registry office and she called him her husband and he called her his wife. They knew each other very little.

But in those early days he truly understood the meaning of married bliss. Her presence in his life had lightened his mood and given him new confidence.  She inspired him; he wanted to give her a home that fit her, with beautiful things inside and blue roses in the garden. He promised she would not regret marrying him; he would make her proud and happy. Side by side, they would work towards a common goal, and one day they would look back and be content.

They had purchased a small suburban house with her dowry, where she coped with the housekeeping as best she could without the help of a house elf, which was one of the many luxuries to which she had been accustomed. This life was new and difficult for her, but she never complained, and made him a warm welcome every evening as he returned from work. She was kind and patient when he was irritable and tired, and held him like a child when his spirits were low. If she had entertained other expectations from life, she never told him so.

He remembered the night their son was born, a January night when the rain had pattered on the roof tiles for hours, with a noise that almost drowned Septimia’s voice. He recalled how she had looked when she finally held the child in her arms. She had been very pale with fatigue, for the birth had been difficult; she was so weary that she had cried. But she had smiled at the sight of their baby boy, and they both felt intensely proud.

There had, however, been one painful moment when they had nearly had an argument about his name. She had come up with what she said was an old name in her family, one that he had thought too ridiculous for words. It smelled of pureblood snobbery.

“You can’t be serious!” he had said. “We cannot do that to the boy. Nobody nowadays calls their children Caligula or Heliogabalus or Vespasianus; the boy will be condemned to ridicule. What’s wrong with John, or William, or Henry, or Thomas, or, for that matter, Stephen?”

She had not pursued the argument, but he could see she was disgruntled; to pacify her, he finally acquiesced in her choice. But he refused to use the outlandish thing himself and always referred to the boy as ‘young Stephen.’  

The incident should have raised his suspicions, but it had not. He was too intoxicated with happiness to ask any questions. Dark clouds were slowly gathering over the wizarding world, but he, Septimia and their little boy lived their own sheltered lives in deliberate obliviousness. He had fond memories of walks in autumnal forests, of skating rinks and picnics and of eating ice cream cones on Brighton pier. They had bought a camera one day, a great event that took place when the child was about three or four, and from that day on they had amassed snapshots of each other, those superfluous things that disappear in large cardboard boxes never to be looked at, but the taking of which somehow gives you such pleasure, trying, as you do, to capture fleeting moments of joy and make them last forever. (Their differences, which were definitely there, too, went unrecorded.) The pictures were of astonishing, pastoral innocence: his wife in light cotton robes and a large straw hat; the boy gathering shells on the beach; the three of them under a large parasol; the child sitting on his father’s shoulders, watching fireworks on New Year’s Eve; and all of them laughing, or smiling, or at least looking pleased. He could not bear watching them now, waving at him or just going about in their small rectangular world, still even though moving.

There were days, afterwards, when he wished he had never found out, and others at which he condemned such thoughts as betrayal. If there had been a choice, what would he have done? Was blissful ignorance preferable to the truth? Is anything worth setting one’s principles aside for? It was the one thing he kept telling himself: his own integrity had remained intact.

The story was very stupid, really. The thing would never have come to pass if he hadn’t been so damned unpopular. He had never been one to mince his words, not even when talking to his superiors, and when he noticed misfeasance he pointed it out. The year his boy reached his fifth birthday he had apparently vented his indignation once to many, and his Chief, outraged, had banished him to the Magical Law Enforcement archives, sneering that his fussiness made him excellently suited to classifying the numberless files lying about in the Ministry’s cellars. It was nothing short of a sentence of death, he had muttered to Septimia: if the layers of age-old dust didn’t suffocate him, he was likely to die of starvation; the archives were veritably labyrinthine. But his wife had smiled, kissed his large nose and reminded him of the Four-Point Spell; she said he had no excuse to be late for dinner.

And so he had grudgingly embarked on his Herculean task, determined to gain what little credit he could by actually completing it, and to prove that if he was obnoxious, he was at least courageous and competent in addition, which was more than could be said of some of his superiors. Slowly but surely, he tackled the stacks of parchment and newspaper cuttings in varying states of mouldiness, and brought order in the accumulated chaos caused by the negligence and untidiness characteristic of wizardkind at large, and to which he was a happy exception. It was not pleasant work: the dust made him sneeze and settled under his fingernails, on his robes and in his hair; and even though he got some satisfaction out of devising a cross-referencing cataloguing system for all the material, the job was, on the whole, exceedingly boring, and he did not have the feeling that he was doing anything useful. It was at this point, with his career at a standstill, that he made the discovery that shook up his private life and would eventually leave his home in ruins.

He had, in those dark, gloomy cellars, quite literally stumbled upon the Grindelwald case files. They contained the transcripts of the trials of various witches and wizards who had collaborated with the infamous Dark sorcerer, committing acts of terrorism in his name or otherwise helping him to gain a foothold in Britain. It was painful, being so suddenly confronted with their testimonies. Stephen’s parents had been among their victims; they had died random deaths, haplessly walking past an inn that had been targeted in one last vicious strike. This attack, more than any other, had sent a shockwave through the magical community – it was the summer of 1945, and by that time the Grindelwald supporters had already known their battle was lost. Stephen had followed the trials with a kind of detached interest, because none of it could restore the damage done. All through the proceedings he wondered what on earth could drive people to commit cruelty and violence on such a scale against other humans, especially as he could see no sense in them.

Stephen could understand rebellion. He could understand revenge. He could understand righteous anger. But most of the witches and wizards on trial had displayed none of these sentiments, and their motivations had appeared appallingly vague. It seemed as if they had just been waiting for someone’s, anyone’s, sanction to wreak havoc, and Grindelwald had taken up the gauntlet. He had, in the early forties, set up a nation-wide campaign to legitimate the practice of Dark Arts, which in Britain had been all but forbidden since the Age of Enlightenment. The reason for the ban had been Dark magic’s antisocial philosophy, which had in earlier days regularly disrupted both the peace of the magical community and its already strained relations with the Muggle world. Dark sorcerers, who preferably operated on their own or as members of exclusive, occult brotherhoods, tended to display a disturbing lack of respect for their fellow creatures. It was in the nature of their art that magic should be accomplished by preying upon others, by using them as the means to an end. They were of the opinion that their witchcraft justified the taking of lives; that other people’s laws did not apply to them; and that their superiority entitled them to the exercise of power. They were, in short, a selfish, greedy, and power-hungry lot without any sense of limitation or human decency. Grindelwald had temporarily succeeded in getting a band of them to join his banner, and nothing but terror and chaos had ensued. Stephen had joined the Magical Law Enforcement Squad in order to protect his fellow beings from just those things.

Now he held in his trembling fingers a photograph from a December 1945 issue of the Daily Prophet, captioned, ‘DeQuinceys Tried and Sentenced – Grindelwald Associates Sent to Azkaban’. Clinging to the snow-stained velvety robes of a haughty-looking, remarkably ugly wizard, himself supporting a dark-haired witch in a veil, was a little girl in a fur-lined cape, looking utterly confused and bewildered. She could not have been older than ten, but he recognised her immediately. It was Septimia DeQuincey, whom he had met and married as Septimia Bones.

When the first shock had subsided, he had rushed to Hector Bones’s office on Level Two and, without a word, smacked the DeQuincey file, picture on top, down on his father-in-law’s desk. Bones had picked up the photo in the quiet manner that comes to some men in their old age, and looked at Stephen over the rim of his reading glasses.

“We wanted to shield her,” he said. “She was so young. Amanda and I did not want her to carry the burden of her parents’ decisions. We gave her our name to protect her against prejudice.”

“Did I not have a right to know?” Stephen had asked, his voice hoarse.

“Would you have married her?”

“No.”

No, he wouldn’t have. He would have distrusted her from the beginning. He knew it was not fair, but he was being honest.

“We thought she deserved a chance.”

Silence.

“Has she not been a good wife to you?” Bones’s soft brown eyes had fixed upon him, steadily but without reproach.

“Yes,” he had answered curtly.

“Then why not let the past be the past?” the old wizard continued. “She had no responsibility in it all. She was a child. Please, judge her by her own actions, not her family’s – she has that right, don’t you think? By withholding her name, we gave both of you the opportunity to make an open-minded choice, and it has been good, has it not?”

Stephen had nodded, if only because there was nothing to deny, but his thoughts were still in turmoil as he retreated to the archives. He could not shake off the unrest that had crept into his mind, and the snake of suspicion had begun to eat away at his heart. It was true that he had nothing to complain about; but what if he had just not been tuned in to specific signals? It was easy to miss a thing you were not particularly looking for.

Now that he knew what she might be hiding, he could be on the alert. He decided not to talk to her about what he had found out, but just to observe her unawares. After all, as Bones had pointed out, he had been happy with her before; maybe his fears were groundless. She might not have inherited her parents’ proclivities. She deserved the benefit of the doubt.

He plodded through the files almost against his will, eager to find out more, yet dreading what he would encounter. And as he read through the descriptions of what had been found at the DeQuincey mansion, or about the Melifluas’ anti-Muggle movement (Septimia’s mother Anastasia had been a Meliflua), or about Septimus DeQuincey’s publications on Dark transfigurations, he wondered if a child could escape its background, or if a propensity to Dark matters was a thing that creeps in your veins and cannot be denied.

He hoped there was such a thing as choice, but he was not sure he really believed in it.

 

 

 

 

 

Next: Old Stephen grows paranoid; Young Stephen grows up.

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