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GLADYS September, 1937
Wedged between Professors Slughorn and Grifone, Gladys Boothby surveyed the crowd of students. A representative bunch, she thought. A very few bright lights. Some outright malingerers. But mostly average riders. Yes, this would be an interesting contest, though not the one that the caste-obsessed Potions Master envisioned.
Headmaster Dippet addressed himself to the group at large, rocking back and forth on his heels as he was wont to do when he had a secret he was dying to share.
“Now that you are all here, I can explain to you what it is you are all here for." Gladys chuckled. Armando did have an interesting way with words. "You all have one thing in common: a red mark somewhere on your anatomies that was produced by the injection of an Impellor Potion.”
Most of the students looked puzzled. They felt about their persons and stole glances at their nearest neighbors. Several of them did have a large reddish welt somewhere on an uncovered portion of skin.
There were a few knowing remarks. Damocles Belby punctuated the murmuring with his patented, pompous “Of course, I might have known.”
Hmmph, thought Gladys--Belby. He'd tried that phrase in his first broom flying class, but she'd put him in his place quickly.
"You might have known what, Mr. Belby?"
"Uh—that the—uh--thingy you're pointing to keeps those twig things from—uh—falling off the long stick thing."
"Very well put. I couldn't have said it better myself."
There had been laughter at this and she heard herself quoted ad nauseam for the better part of a week—to Belby's well-deserved embarrassment.
Throughout her reminiscence, the Headmaster had continued to twitter away excitedly: “…and Professor Grifone will, I'm sure, be happy to explain the ramifications of those—erm-- bumps.”
The Creature Teacher, as she was known to the students, rose and took center stage. Despite her native prejudice against 'the dark-skinned races', Madam Boothby had to admire Porpentina Cavallo-Grifone's graceful, upright carriage, which was fostered by many years of training in Hippogriff dressage. Everyone on the staff had seen her handle the temperamental beasts, and she had a raft of certificates and show ribbons in her office attesting to her expertise. Her kinky black hair, as always, was slicked and tucked severely back in a no-nonsense bun, but curling wisps at the sides of her face softened the effect about her olive skin. That and the red in her cheeks showed she had been out riding in the wind already that morning—a real sportswitch. Her smile and serene countenance reminded Gladys of a painting she'd seen in one of Dr. Egg's Muggle Studies texts--the Mona Lisa, she thought it was called. Signorina Grifone always wore robes cut in the Italiano style—well that was what Gally Merrythought called it. The cloth fell in straight lines from a chest the Headmaster had once described in an unguarded moment as ‘ample.’
She spoke decent English for a foreigner, with occasional lapses into her native idiom. “You all are familiar with the Muggle honeybee, si? Apis mellifera, we call her. But there is also a very rare, related, magical creature called Apis spellifera. Once upon the time, these blithe little fellows would congregate about the schools of magic and randomly sting the students. Their venom had the property of being able to force persons to challenge each other to the Wizarding du-ells.
Damo Belby raised his hand, not with a question, but a statement of the obvious. "So we've each been stung by the Spelling Bee. But surely there is an antidote. My uncle Gladius is an apothecary and he will know--"
“An antidote?" interrupted a girl. It sounded like Augusta Fairfax. "Why would we need an antidote? Is there some danger--?”
“My head hurts,” mumbled Walden Macnair. Gladys stifled a snort. Why was that not surprising? Given his innate dislike of study, it likely pained him just to think. But he was quite a decent Beater.
During her musing, the complaints had swelled into a great choral whine.
“Isn't it hot in here?”
"My heart's racing."
“I feel itchy—all over.”
“Are anyone's legs cramping up? Mine are.”
The Games Mistress surveyed her students with a practiced eye. Several of them were imagining allergic symptoms rather well. One girl had slumped into a chair and had her face buried in her hands. Belby’s fat face was even redder than usual. Algie Longbottom was sweating freely. Ah, the power of suggestion on the juvenile mind. It was even better than magic in some ways.
But she had a scare as one boy started clutching at his throat. His face distorted by panic, he went down on his knees, twitching all over. “I—I don’t think I can breath,” he rasped. Now his eyes rolled up in his head, and he started to shake. She put her hand in her pocket and felt for her wand. Drat that young oaf, Slughorn. He had assured them all that the Impellor could have no dangerous side-effects. But as she was mouthing the words to Transport the poor fellow to the infirmary, Walden Macnair came up behind the boy and gave him a shove with his foot. He fell forward, did a roll, and bounded back up quickly, right at Gladys' feet. His face relaxed and became recognizable. It was, of course, Raymie Sykes.
"All better," he quipped to gasps and titters. Gladys herself had to restrain herself from joining in as her favorite miscreant bowed to her and winked, before skipping back to his knot of friends.
Professor Grifone was not amused. "Five points from your House, Signor Sykes." The Gryffindors groaned, as the Slytherins snickered. "and yours, Signor Macnair for abetting him." Everyone became very quiet. Young as she was, she knew how to maintain control.
A timid hand rose, Enid Arbuckle's--the usual worried pucker on her pallid forehead. She was a shy, nervous creature--Muggle-born--and always looked as if she were about to burst into tears. "Erm--ma'am, aren't these creatures dangerous--I mean--I really do feel strange--"
"No, no, lo non capiscere. You do not understand. There are no more of these bees--the spelliferae--on this island. They have been driven far away, and now live in a refuge in my own country. We Italians rather enjoy the wizarding du-ells, you comprehend. But I was telling our new Potions professor, Signor Snail--ah--Slughorn about these, and it gave him the idea for a kind of contest, something to enhance our learning and our unity. It is a good thing, the unity--no? But I will let him explain it himself. Professore?"
The Blimp--that was how Gladys thought of him--fluffed his poncy maroon robes about his paunch, stood up--panting with the effort, of course--and took Mona Lisa's hand. He made as if to kiss it, but she—smart girl-- pulled away and beckoned him to the fore.
"Ah—ahem—yes. Thank you, Porpentina, my dear. Headmaster Dippet, Madam Boothby, students," he began formally. "I am Horace Slughorn, your new Potions Master. I cannot tell you just how happy I am to be a part of this venerable institution. When I was selected to join you here, I thought to myself: how can I be of greatest use to our school? I have always been the type who likes to bring people together, and I thought to myself, what better way than a kind of contest, you know, with many students participating—to drive us to greater heights of scholarly endeavor? After all, what's better than the threat of competition to make you chaps study hard, eh?" The joke fell flat, but Slughorn was an unflappable type, and he forged ahead. "Anyway, I suggested at a staff meeting that we take a leaf out of the Spelling Bee's book and get the best students together for just such a match, and my idea was met with unanimous approval."
Unanimous? Hardly. Both Gladys and Albus Dumbledore had had reservations. And 'the best students?' She chuckled. In no way was this the best the school had to offer. She tried to imagine Sykes and Macnair and Algie Longbottom trying to defend themselves in a wizarding free-for-all. She'd sooner put her faith in a flight of doxies.
Professor Slughorn might have read her mind, for he continued, "But a few of the staff, your estimable Transfiguration teacher among them, thought we should open the contest to all the students by approximating a mindless—er--random selection process, much as little Apis spellifera would use. And here's where the third member of our little trio comes into the picture. While we were all wondering how best to make the selection of participants as equitable as possible, Games Mistress Boothby suggested the perfect solution. And here she is to explain her rationale. Gladys?" He took her elbow to help her up, but she shrugged him off.
She straightened up with some difficulty, her large chin out-thrust, a light of pugnacity in her eyes. Those eyes softened a bit as she glimpsed Minerva McGonagall in the crowd. Gladys Boothby was the inventor of the Moontrimmer, the first-ever racing broom. Minerva's father, Jupiter McGonagall, was himself an inventor and, in his time, a nimble and canny Quidditch player. She had admired him, and saw in his daughter the same qualities of doggedness and keen intellect.
She shrugged off the memory and addressed the crowd. "I'm not at all sure that this is a sound idea, but for the sake of fostering a competitive spirit in those of you who wouldn't know the business end of a broomstick from a Sphinx's bottom, I'm going along with it. That creature that stung you this morning was no live thing, but a Snitch, structurally altered to hold eighteen doses of Professor Slughorn's Impellor Potion, and fitted with a special hollow needle to allow it to inject a judicious amount into each person it ran into."
Barty Crouch raised his hand. "But Snitches are Charmed to stay away from people. How did you get it to—"
Madam Boothby cleared her throat loudly. It was a little embarrassing, but she would have to admit it. "It so happens that we have in our possession a 'doctored Snitch,' with an eccentric flying motion. Among its other shortcomings, it is attracted to, rather than repelled, by the company of humans. We had to stop using it for games some years ago, as it is dreadfully easy to capture. Anyway, you've all been injected, and the potion brought you here." She sat down abruptly. Let the younger generation answer the rest of the questions. It was their show, after all, and, unfortunately, the face of the student who'd doctored that Snitch--Jupiter McGonagall--kept popping up into her head, threatening to make her lose her train of thought altogether. He had been one of her favorite students, though she never told him so…
Waldo Macnair raised his hand. “So, what’s the problem, Miss? The swelling goes away eventually, doesn’t it?”
“I certainly hope so,” murmured Fairfax. “I wouldn’t want to go outside looking like this.” The Snitch had stung her on her cheek and the welt made her look as if she’d been in a fight. Actually it rather became her. Augusta Fairfax was a proud, feisty type who knew her way around the Quidditch pitch and might yet make the Ravenclaw team if she could only stop worrying about showing up her boyfriend. But then who could blame her? Jack Longbottom cut a dashing figure, whether sailing about on his Cleansweep or holding court among the Ravenclaw contingent at dinner.
Signorina Cavallo-Grifone rose once more. "Pace, pace. This wound--it should subside in a few hours, poco a poco. But let me explain to you the contest."
“It doesn’t involve dragons, does it? Or flobberworms?" This from Jack's brother, Algie. It was lines like this that made Gladys wonder unkindly if he were adopted. His Moncrieffe ancestors would be appalled at his silliness.
"I hope not. I hate flobberworms." This came as a mock-fearful squeak from Raymie Sykes, the young scamp.
"I just meant—I mean—they're so——messy--and--monotonal--" explained Algie.
The Creature Teacher guided the discussion back to its original purpose. “No, no, there will be no monsters—of any variety. The contest, it is just the friendly little test of the charms work. And in honor of the tiny creature who gave us the idea, we are to be calling it 'The Spelling Bee'."
There were murmurs all around and a titter from Enid Arbuckle. The name for the contest had been the contribution of Morty Egg, the Muggle Studies professor, and he had explained the alternate American Muggle meaning of the phrase 'spelling bee' to the staff, who approved it almost to a man. But Gladys didn't like it. It made the whole idea sound like a great joke.
“So what do we have to do to win, Miss?” It was Macnair again, not surprisingly going straight for the jugular, the same way he played Quidditch. What brain cells the boy did have were devoted to one thing: showing his father that he was every bit as worthy of the family escutcheon as his brothers Petey and Conall. And he managed to succeed--on a broomstick at least.
“We have decided there should be two parts," Professor Grifone answered him, "the elimination rounds and a final. In the first part, you all line up in a row and demonstrate some spells, which one of the teachers will announce. If you cannot correctly perform a spell that the group is asked to do, you are eliminated from the competition. When only four contestants are left, we have a series of the one-against-one du-ells to determine the Best-in-Show.”
“That’s great,” said Raymie.
“But it could be disastrous, couldn't it, Professor?" said Augusta. "I mean, what if somebody throws a killing spell or something?”
“That's a good point," said a pale boy Gladys didn't at first recognize. "What spells will we be allowed to use in the contest, Miss? Just what we’ve learned in school? If so, I'm out of luck."
Whatever do you mean, Signor-er—"
"Riddle, Miss. Tom Riddle." He stepped forward. He was tall and strong looking. Gladys remembered him from broom riding class, one of the few who stood out. He was an obvious novice, but a quick learner, though, she sensed, not really interested in sports. "Well—I'm a first year and--"
"You are?" She turned to Professor Slughorn and whispered urgently, "Were there no precautions taken against this?"
"Well—erm--I thought I would merely take any new students aside later and tell them they would not be required to participate." Ah, leave it to the inexperienced to forget a most important facet of the choosing, the presence of first years in the mix.
Signorina Grifone turned back to the students. "For how many of you is this the first year?"
Three hands shot up: a very short, ugly child whom Gladys hoped was a boy, the tall, pale fellow named Tom, and an energetic lass who looked like she'd been raised on a farm—-ruddy and plump, but also well muscled.
The Creature Teacher's eyes softened. "We had intended the du-ell to be mandatory, but if any of you young ones wish not to participate, it will be understood."
The plump girl, eyes sparkling, was the first to speak. "Oh, I don't know, Miss. I'd rather like to give it a go. I have three brothers and we're always pranking each other out in the fields. I think I could hold my own."
There was applause at this, and a "Good show, Sproutie" from one of her friends.
"And you are--?"
"Pomona Sprout, Miss, from Laverstoke. But my chums call me "Brussel."
The ugly child spoke up next, its squeak barely heard over the buzz of conversation. That voice--Gladys feared greatly that it indeed belonged to a girl. Though she regularly turned a deaf ear to young ladies' laments about their spotty faces and hairy legs, she felt a pang of sympathy here. No female should have to go through life with that mug. "I'm game too," the poor thing managed to get out. There was more applause.
"Attaboy, Flitwick!" cried Barty Crouch. Attaboy! Oh, thank goodness…
That left Tom Riddle. All eyes seemed to focus on him, especially the Slytherins'. "I—uh—well—I only just came into my powers. So I don't know—"
"Late-bloomer, eh?" shouted a voice. Belby, of course. There were snickers at this, and, Gladys thought, a hint of compassionate murmuring from the girls.
Professor Grifone was, predictably, among them. "We will all understand, Signor Riddle, if you feel you cannot—"
"Cannot?" echoed Riddle. Gladys thought she detected a note of pride, almost irritation in the boy's voice. "I—it's not that—I mean--I wouldn't want to let my team down—"
"There is no team involved here. It is a contest of the individual talent—"
"Yes, I know, but—" He thought a moment, possibly pondering his chances of success or gauging his fellow Slytherins' reactions—if so, a rather sophisticated thought process in one so young. "I say, it'll mean a bit of hard work, but—I'm up for the challenge."
This got the most cheers of all, and suddenly the atmosphere lightened considerably with people slapping their housemates on the back and boasting of all the spells they had mastered. The Creature Teacher interrupted them.
"We have not yet answered all of your questions. Signor Riddle had one. He wanted to know if you will be restricted to using only the spells you have learned in the school. And the answer is no. You may use any spell you have mastered, except for killing spells and others forbidden by your Ministry, which I am sure all of you have been taught about in Magical Defense.
Thick pallid fingers fluttered tentatively in the air. It was Algie Longbottom, his shock of mouse brown hair falling down into his eyes as usual. As he stood up, Gladys noticed the shiny chartreuse ascot he used to dress up the voluminous black school robes hiding his large, soft body. The neck scarf's bright color reflected off his face and made his round head look like the full moon coming up over a midnight horizon.
"I have a question, Professor Grifone."
There was a chuckle behind him and a loud whisper: “No, Algie, for the umpteenth time, she won’t go out with you.”
The room burst into laughter. Gladys recognized Raymie Sykes as the perpetrator.
“The large boy blushed. I wasn’t—I would never…”
“That’s all right Algernon,” said The Creature Teacher indulgently. “We are tutti—all--familiar with Raymond’s unique style of humor. Five more points, Raymond, and I'll see you in detention. What was your question, Algernon?”
“Oh--ah, quite," said Algie. "Well, I was going to ask, do you think this—the sting I mean—is an indicator of magical prowess? I mean, did you Charm the Snitch to seek out the most promising witches and wizards to be in the contest? I mean the mater would be awfully pleased if I could tell her…”
“That you’re not a stinking Squib?” This had been a mere mutter from Belby, but a few of the students caught it and there was some smothered tittering behind Gladys.
She called from her seat, “Snitches are mindless, Mr. Longbottom. Even you should know that. There could be no particular rhyme or reason in the way you were all chosen.”
Professor Grifone overrode Algie's reply before he could embarrass himself further and acknowledged a question from Macnair. “Okay, so, Professor, when’s the contest going to be? I mean how long do we have to bone up?”
“You have two weeks to study," she said. The contest will take place at the full moon of October."
After a few more insignificant queries, the students were dismissed to their classes. Gladys Boothby lingered near the door, as the children were released, in knots, laughing and joshing. One of the last groups included Minerva McGonagall. Gladys reached out and stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"I hope you will be trying out for Quidditch this year, Minerva."
"I don't know, Professor. The assignments are so much more demanding in second year."
"True, but one mustn't get too one-sided. All work and no play, you know."
"Yes, I know, but—"
Madam Boothby steered her to a corner, out of the way of exiting students. "I don't think I ever told you how much I admired your father, and how devastated I was—we all were—at his passing."
"I'm sure you did. It was kind of you all to come to the funeral."
"I know, but I'd like to do something more. The daughter of Jupiter McGonagall should not give up her heritage so easily." The old witch searched for a compliment that would not smack of favoritism. "You are a very sound player, Minerva."
"Thank you, Professor."
"I wanted to show you something." She opened the little box she was carrying. Inside was a golden ball with tiny gossamer wings spread out on either side--the Golden Snitch that had been used to inject the Impellor Potion. "Do you know how it came to be so eccentric?"
Minerva shook her head. She did not at all resemble her father, except perhaps in height. She was quite tall for a girl. She had not Jupiter's ruddy coloring, but a creamy smooth complexion, with tiny brown freckles sprinkled about her cheeks. Her hair was almost black, with perhaps a touch of auburn highlights from healthy sun-exposure. She wore it long and unadorned, which accentuated the length of her thin, straight nose.
"Your father--when he was at Hogwarts--was a decent student and much driven by curiosity."
His daughter nodded, a mist of fondness—or regret—rising in her dark eyes.
Gladys ploughed on, trying not to think of the memories she was stirring in the still-grieving child, and hoping she wouldn't want to kick herself about it afterwards. "He was, to cite an example, forever belaboring me with questions about my Moontrimmer: how I got the idea, what special spells I put into it, and on and on. I had to restrain myself from doing a Silencio on him."
Minerva smiled at this and a giggle escaped her. The sound, unforced, seemed to drive off the mist, and it heartened the older woman to continue her story.
"In point of fact, he wouldn't stop until I let him have a go on one himself. I know he was dying to take it apart."
"That would be like him." The child's voice had modulated over the past year into a pleasant contralto.
"Then he started asking how a Snitch worked. I loaned him my copy of Bowman Wright's original notes, but apparently that was not enough for him. One night, after a particularly hard-fought Gryffindor scrimmage, I discovered one of the school Snitches missing. Though I suspected your father, I said nothing. Two days later the Snitch was mysteriously back in its box. But the very next time we used that Snitch for a game, it hugged the walls of the stadium and at odd times would fly right at a player. That turned out to be one of the shortest games on record, as, three minutes into the match, this little fellow made a beeline for the Slytherin team's Seeker. He caught it of course. As the opposing team was Gryffindor House, I thought it a bit of poetic justice."
"That is funny. I did know part of the story from Da—er—my father—but he didn't tell me you found him out."
"I never told him. But I kept the Snitch, always thinking to give it to him someday, as a memento of his first attempt at inventing."
"Well, he didn't invent it—"
"No, but he did change it. That's where creativity begins, Minerva. And now I want you to have it—as a reminder of what he was."
"A mischievous and disobedient student?" Minerva was still smiling, but Gladys could see that mist rising again behind the shine of her eyes.
"No, a restless, inquiring mind, who did much good in his short life." With that, she pressed the box into the girl's hand and left quickly, so the student would not see that selfsame mist rising in her teacher's eyes.