Chapter 3 : Vindication
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Years once again passed in quick succession, each day bleeding into the next. Dexter Fortescue, who, it turned out, had been a Headmaster of Hogwarts at the time of Cromwell, was happy enough to carry letters for the Lady and Jeremiah when “the Headmaster does not require my explicit and esteemed service.” And Jeremiah wrote such beautiful things: of how dearly he missed her splendid face, her kind eyes, her gentle hands. Once he wrote of how he thought about her well-shaped calves, and she had blushed so deeply that the young Transfiguration teacher who was passing by as she read the letter had stopped and asked what ailed the dear lady with mild, amused alarm.
The Lady wrote to Jeremiah of the goings-on at Hogwarts: how the young wizards of the castle could be heard speaking in hushed tones of enchanting documents and the best sort of Confundus charm to use on a war magistrate so that they might enlist in the King’s army. Britain was changing in the years since the great Smith family had their portraits painted so decorously, and the country was on the brink of war.
The war did not touch the portraits of Hogwarts as much as it struck the rest of the nation, or so the Lady thought for a long time. Jeremiah spoke of how the master of the house, a forward thinking and new-money wizard who had made his fortune among the great factories of the north, had turned the grand London home into a hospital for wounded soldiers, magical and muggle alike, which led to some awkwardness and much blame for strange sightings placed on the effects of drugs and medicines.
There had been a particularly awkward moment when the master’s young daughter’s pet Crup had escaped from the girl’s arms and attacked several of the invalid muggle men- Crups were notorious for disliking muggles, hence why the full-grown ones made excellent guard dogs in wizarding residences. It had taken a great deal of hedging and denial on the part of the master to convince his house’s inhabitants that the puppy growling at them did not, in fact, have a forked tail. The portraits were responsible for keeping very still when muggle patients were being transported through their chambers, though Jeremiah claimed that one common-spoken young gentlema had commented rather loudly on the insistence that “the ol’ Cap’n ‘ad ‘is sword in ‘is other ‘and yesterday, ‘e did!”
The fact that the hospital in the house catered to both magical and non-magical folk and treated them in the same way was a subject of sore contention among some of the traditionally-minded purebloods of London, who believed muggles were undeniably inferior to wizardkind. Jeremiah wrote of angry young men, who refused to go to fight in the muggle war and who avoided conscription through a series of bribery and concealment, and who instead spent their idle moments coming to harass the master of the house for his controversial choices. This did not surprise the Lady, for Violet had heard that Professor Nott, who had become the head of Slytherin house after the former head’s death in the trenches, had skillfully weaseled out of any call to duty in which to fight for the nation he had never left in his thirty years of life, speaking defiantly of his distaste for magical involvement in muggle affairs.
The Lady rather disliked the arrogant and uppity Professor Nott. She much preferred his colleague, the gentle and brilliant Professor Dumbledore, the young man who had been in the Headmaster’s office when she had first met with Dexter Fortescue and had word of Jeremiah. He took a particular interest in her, and whenever he passed by her corridor he was apt to pause and have a few kind words with her.
And it was Professor Dumbledore who brought her the most terrible news since her creation.
The war was over, or nearing it, and Fortescue had been busy doing the Headmaster’s bidding in carrying messages to London. However, confusion struck when he attempted to enter his Kensington portrait through his Hogwarts frame, but found the door sealed against him at the back of his portrait. Confused, he had apologized huffily to the Lady when she came to him seeking a new letter from Jeremiah, explaining that something must have interfered with the magic connecting his portraits, or perhaps something had happened in the Kensington house to prevent his travel.
The Lady soothed herself by repeating the anthem that there was not yet any cause for concern, and took out her troubles by scolding students who were running in the corridors or heading out after lights-out. This earned her a rather strict reputation and the grudges of certain troublemaking students, though the teachers learned to find her quite useful as she had a great eye for spying the features of mischievous students. Life carried on as usual, and she visited the Head’s office regularly over the next week to see if there was any news.
So, on the seventh day she was sitting in her frame and admiring the golden cup in the corner when a long shadow descended down the corridor against the lights from the torches. She looked up in surprise as the tall, thin Professor came towards her, stopping in front of her frame and clasping his hands together in front of him, and bowing his head slightly in acknowledgement.
“Professor Dumbledore, lovely to see you,” she trilled in a false voice, refusing to give away the fear which was churning and chopping in her stomach like a restless sea. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” She wished for a fleeting moment that she was in the same dimension as he and could offer her guest a cup of tea, just to give her hands something to do besides clutching at her dress with clammy apprehension.
“My dear Lady,” Dumbledore said gently. The torches flickered against his shoulder-length auburn hair and his short wisp of a beard, and his shoulders were narrow and high, his blue eyes soft. “I am afraid I have some terrible news, and it grieves me that you must suffer as such.”
“Jeremiah,” the Lady whispered, clutching at her heart. She sank into her chaise and fought to maintain composure. “Oh, Dumbledore, do not spare me. Tell me the truth, and do not delay.”
“I am very sorry to tell you,” Dumbledore said, and she thought she caught a glimpse of a crystal tear shimmering at the corner of one of the brilliant blue eyes. “That the great home in which your husband was placed, the High Kensington hospital, has been the subject of a terrible fire, a blaze which ravaged the entire block and was only prevented from advancing on Kensington Gardens by the quick thinking and heroic actions of the Hyde Park kelpie and a group of Aurors who were frequenting the local pub.” He bowed his head.
“And… the portraits?” the Lady whispered.
Dumbledore shook his head sadly. “The Ministry has appointed search and rescue teams to salvage what they could of the house. I fear there were a great number of Healers and patients trapped within the burning walls, and the portraits were reduced to smoking frames.”
“So Jeremiah is dead,” the Lady concluded, and a terrible weight descended upon her, a sense of being absolutely alone in the world, and she felt that she might sink to the floor in a pile of pink and frills and despair were it not for the bright-eyed, kind man standing before her.
“I am so sorry,” he said quietly, and through her shock she thought what a good wizard he was, for no other beyond the frame would have cared such about the loss of a portrait, when the portrait had nothing to do with his own wealth or grandeur. But the compassion in his eyes was true, she thought.
“Thank you for telling me, it was kind,” she said. “I think… I must mourn my husband now.”
“There was a frame which remained,” Dumbledore said gently. “I have sent for it to be brought to Hogwarts, should you wish to see this last remainder of your husband’s portrait. If you should wish to see it, well, you know where to find me, I am sure.”
The Lady smiled, a crooked, uneasy thing. As the footsteps of the Professor descended down the hall she lay and stared at the painted ceiling of her portrait, and thought of Jeremiah: his kind voice, his penchant for mischief, his gentle devotion. She thought of his thin hand in her plump one, of the tips of his moustache twirling up when he smiled, of his attention to detail and his interest in the world beyond his frame. And inside, she felt a faint sort of anger, for though it would never be proven she suspected that it was those disenchanted young pureblood wizards who had disapproved of the hospital who had begun the arson, and who were responsible for the loss of her beloved husband, the kindest man who ever lived within gilded gold.
She clutched his letters to her bosom, and she wondered where the soul of a portrait went after death, whether it was anything like that of a true human. She thought of the artists who created beings like she and Jeremiah, and whether they were mere mortal men or blessed with that special, nearly magical power to create a soul through smudges of paint and canvas. When the real Captain Jeremiah Smith had died, there had been a great funeral procession, and sermons held in his honour, and memorials. Even Jeremiah had been nothing but a memorial to the Captain’s memory. But when she compared the two: the man and his likeness, she thought that with his goodness and purity it was her Jeremiah who far more deserved a wonderful life beyond his earthly one.
Days trickled into weeks, and weeks into months, and the Lady mourned in the nature of the Victorians. Since that day with Dumbledore, she did not let anyone else understand her grief, the pain weighing within her invisible heart. She held the memory of her dearest close to her chest, and often read and re-read his letters to herself when the castle had gone to sleep, hearing his humour and love in the written words. She shooed Sir Cadogan from her frame and lectured students and drank wine with Violet, and wondered how she could have a future in a world in which there was no Jeremiah.
Portraits, unless they are destroyed in some way, exist in an odd kind of immortality. The depth of the portrait’s intelligence depends on the skill of the painter, and on some indescribable quality which those who study the portraits in the Department of Mysteries cannot discern. The Lady had been created to memorialize one half of the glorious patriarch and matriarch of the Smith family, and she had served that purpose and been all but forgotten in the halls of Hogwarts. Just as family graves go untended and become overgrown after a few generations, so do the portraits of those who are no longer present.
The Lady without Jeremiah to love her, even from afar, could have become lost in her own unimportance.
But like so many after her, the Lady’s existence was given a purpose by Professor Dumbledore. He came to offer her a position guarding the entrance to the Gryffindor common room, as the post had recently been vacated. The former portrait which had stood there, of a dark-haired man at a pottery wheel who was said to be the very first Muggleborn student to graduate from Hogwarts, had been claimed by some descendant of the portrait’s subject who had laid claim to its ownership and insisted on removing the portrait from Hogwarts, most likely to be sold to the wizarding chamber of the London Portrait Gallery which would pay a pretty galleon for such a treasure.
“But why me?” the Lady asked Dumbledore. She could not think what use she could be: she was not brave, nor famous no matter the ancestry of the original Fat Lady.
Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled. “Well, whyever not? I have spoken with the Headmaster on the matter, it is all settled. Your duties will be simple enough, to allow passage into the portrait hole for those students who know the password, to be wary of intruders and keep the Head of House – that is, myself – informed of the goings on about the house of Gryffindor.”
The Lady hesitated. The entrance to Gryffindor Tower was in a fairly accessible and busy part of the castle: she would be much closer to visit Violet or to converse with the surrounding portraits. And then there was the responsibility: her chest puffed up a little with pride at the thought of it.
“Very well,” the Lady said, looking about the small area which had been her home for so many years. “But I do have a request, first: I would like to have a new frame.”
“Certainly,” Dumbledore said. He did not seem surprised in the slightest. “I think we have just the one in my office.”
And so, very carefully, the Lady’s canvas was taken from her original frame and placed into the frame which had once contained the portrait of her dear Jeremiah. They had been perfect doubles, mirror images of one another; she fit into his frame perfectly, the charred edges of the interior soothed by spells, the fine layer of ash polished so that it shone as it once had in their place high in the grand rooms of the Smith house.
She felt closer to him, then. With Jeremiah’s presence in her portrait, she could conquer anything.
The Lady took nicely to her new role at Hogwarts. The Gryffindors were an amusing bunch, and she took pride in secretly knowing their names and business, and great pleasure in refusing admittance to those who had been too scatter-brained to recall the password. She took her job quite seriously, as she imagined Jeremiah would have. She had a crucial purpose in the running of Hogwarts, and she believed he would have been proud of her.
Years passed, and another war came and went, taking some of the young male students with it and leaving the country in disrepair. Investment plummeted and the British economy was in tatters, its great cities ruined by the Luftwaffe. Victory had been won, but at a terrible price, and the age of the British Empire was over. The Lady heard the students mutter of it in the halls, wondering what would happen now that the German government – both magical and muggle – had been destroyed, now that the world was being divided up like dispensable pie between the two surviving great powers of the Americans and the Soviets.
One warming summer day, a young man came to examine her portrait. The Lady stared down at him: the face was familiar enough, as was the name. He was a student of immense charisma and promise, and Violet had explained to the Lady before how the staff spoke eagerly of him, saying that there had not been such a wonderful student as he since Dumbledore himself was at Hogwarts. The boy was very handsome, and perhaps in the last or second-last year of his schooling.
“Do you have business here?” the Lady asked him, growing disconcerted. His eyes were very bright, his skin pale and punctuated with dark circles, as if he had not slept in days. Despite this appearance, his beauty was undeniable.
“I suppose I was just wondering,” the handsome boy said, curling his fingers respectfully in front of him. She remarked on how balanced he was, how his weight seemed equally spread across his symmetrical feet. His movements, like his voice, were graceful and poised. “I couldn’t help but notice that fine cup in the corner of your painting. Was it perhaps a family heirloom or something?”
“Erm, I believe so,” the Lady said, looking about at the golden cup with the badger insignia. “It stood in the drawing room of the home of the lady whom was the model for me, I believe. I know it was very carefully valued.”
“I see,” the boy said thoughtfully. He smiled up at her, and she felt her cheeks glow a little. It had been so long since a handsome man had smiled at her. “Would you perhaps know where the cup had gone to? Is it perhaps still in that house?”
A face flashed in her mind: a chubby, petulant face with a pouting rosebud mouth and tightly wound curls, tucking the cup into her robes as she ran though the house collecting her parents’ valuables.
“I believe it passed into the ownership of a daughter of the house, a Miss Hepzibah Smith, though they always called her Zizi,” the Lady told him, pondering. She smiled down at him. “What is your interest, may I ask?”
“Simply an admirer of fine craftsmanship,” the boy said smoothly. He inclined his head and walked away.
The Lady did not ponder to think what an odd encounter it had been. She admired the cup and its fine placement in her portrait, as she always had, and began to write down a new set of passwords for the month, reminding herself to alert a prefect to the week’s new password when one passed through the portrait hole on the way to the feast. So that was the end of the matter.
Many decades later, when the cup’s fate had long since been decided, when that handsome boy who had so politely charmed her was doing terrible things in the world beyond Hogwarts for the second time in the century, tragedy struck the castle. The Lady heard the news from the portraits in the Entrance Hall, who ran through the castle keening the news. She wept when she heard, great, unashamed tears of mourning and fear.
Dumbledore, her champion, who had once been the young man who had so gently told her of the death of Jeremiah, was gone as well. There was a sort of finality to it. In all her years at Hogwarts, of changing students who grew older and worldlier, of the decades of passwords and riddles and laughter, Dumbledore had been the constant, the reassurance that somebody in the world beyond her frame had her interests stored somewhere in the many vaults of his brilliant mind.
With Dumbledore dead, the world would surely fall.
The day after the death, she was napping in her portrait when two figures stood in front of her, whom she had never seen before but held a certain degree of familiarity. She slit open her eyes and gazed down at them, waiting a mention of the password, wondering if perhaps they were here to admire the cup as well. But as it turned out, their connection to her was something much more personal.
“Imagine, a portrait of a descendant of Helga Hufflepuff guarding the Gryffindor common room,” the younger of the two said. He was a pinched-face boy with blond hair, piggy eyes and plump lips. “I told you, Dad, I didn’t believe it when I heard.”
The father nodded. He was a haughty-looking man with thinning blond hair. “I heard much about her from Granny- she was a grand woman, grand indeed. Look, can you see the cup in the background? I heard she requested explicitly that it be displayed in her portrait. A pity it was never found when old Auntie Zizi croaked.” He did not sound particularly pitying.
“Was there never a portrait of Great-Grandfather?” the son asked. “Old Captain Jeremiah- that must have been a sight to see, eh, Dad?”
The Lady, who had avoided their eyes and was half-listening to the conversation, felt her old heart thud gently in her chest at the old name, old but never loved any less.
The father shook his head. “Destroyed in a fire around the time of the time of the first world war, I was told. Pity about that – the set could have been quite valuable. With just the one there’d be no hope of getting a good price – the husband was the famous one, and his portrait was one of the last by that great French painter whose work is so popular in London now. But come along, our Portkey is leaving in twenty minutes from the village. I just wanted to show you your great-grandmother before leaving school.”
The boy examined her again: they locked eyes. The Lady felt that he was not particularly impressed by what he saw.
Through the years, she kept Jeremiah alive in her mind. If as portraits they were meant to be monuments to those who had once lived, then her thoughts and love for her husband kept him alive, a sort of living monument to that which she held most dear. She listened to the complaints of those beyond her frame: the girls, who cried about their size and how they fit into their robes, whose bodies seemed to grow more frail and spindly and miserable with the years, and she longed to show them how to be beautiful was to be lovely and happy with oneself, how she was considered a great beauty in the time when Captain Smith and his wife had lived. She heard the students lament about time and love and she longed to tell them to hold onto those they loved, for one might never know when they would be snatched away. She had so many lessons to share, but nobody thought to listen.
She lived, and she loved, and she knew loss. And to those who mourned the long-ago Fat Lady, Mrs. Smith, she was soon neglected. But she was the Fat Lady of Gryffindor tower, guardian of those who were brave at heart. And she was known for that, in her own right. And that was what made all the difference.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this little story of mine as I greatly enjoyed writing it. Thank you to ThestralPrincess for the challenge and everybody who left such kind reviews on the earlier chapters. Be sure to admire the beautiful banner by the very talented Ande, and if you have any thoughts on the story then I would love to hear them in a review.
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