Severus wasn´t really sure why he had let her in. The mention of his mother´s name had certainly disarmed him at first, but come to think of it how could that woman possibly know about Eileen? The true Eileen Snape, the witch, not the long suffering wife of Tobias Snape, the neighbourhood´s drunk. Whatever it was this Evelyn Black had to talk to him about, it was probably just some trivial muggle matter...Maybe something to do with the numerous debts his mother had contracted trying to make ends meet and clean up after his father´s messes. Over the years he had gotten many of those visits, but his years working in Hogwarts and having very few personal expenses had allowed him the means to sort out the finances of the Snape family after his parents´ deaths. Luckily Gringotts made currency exchanges with muggle money at very low rates.
Even so, that someone would look for her to collect a debt after twenty years of her passing was just a bit too strange. And that woman most definitely didn´t look like some ordinary debt collector. Too well-mannered, to the point of sounding a little posh, too well-dressed, too patrician... And much to his surprise she seemed genuinely upset when he told her Eileen Prince was dead. Stranger still, she had just apologized and turned to leave, as if whatever it was that she had to discuss it could only be with Eileen herself. For a second he thought she might know his mother... But it was an absurd idea. Miss Black was around his own age, só definitely too young to have known his mother while she was still "Eileen Prince".
Maybe the months he had spent cloistered in his old childhood home after the end of the war had finally started to take a tool on him. This was probably the first time since July he had had an actual conversation with another human being. Of course he got frequent letters from Minerva. After Voldemort´s defeat and Severus´ subsequent stay at St. Mungo, Minerva seemed to have become overcome with remorse, in spite of all his reassurance that whatever it was that he had done, it was his choice, and apologies or displays of gratitude were simply out of place.
Still he could understand her...Throughout his teaching years Minerva had probably been the closest thing to a best friend he had had, and the whole affair of Dumbledore´s death, his apparent betrayal and near-passing, as well as the ensuing revelations about his double-agent activities, had certainly had a huge impact on her. To this day he got weekly letters from her, all filled with a nearly apologetic concern about his well-being.
But letters couldn´t substitute a real interaction with another person. As antisocial as he had always been, sitting alone all day long in the decrepit Spinner´s End house for months on end was starting to weight heavily on him. As Evelyn Black stood on his doorstep he had felt something he hadn´t felt for months...Interest. Not interest in her per se, but interest on something, anything. Curiosity, so to speak. Maybe that was why he had let her in. She might give him something to do with his time, even if only for the brief time span of an inconsequential conversation. Something to take him out of his hibernation for a moment.
She looked frankly nervous as she came in.
"Tea?" He offered, out of a flatly conventional sense of hospitality he hadn´t exercised in a long time. Having guests was definitely not at the top of the list of his favorite things to do.
"Sure, thank you... Do you need any help?" She asked, offering him some polite proximity he didn´t really care for.
"No." His answer came out harsher than he intended. It didn´t matter much, really.
As he heated the water for the tea, he could hear her footsteps in the sitting room. He looked over his shoulder and saw as she moved around slowly looking at everything, almost as if visiting a museum, arms crossed over her chest, her deep red blouse in a stark contrast with the brownish grey-sepia rows of books that covered the walls. She had her back turned to him but he could see perfectly how upstraight he posture was, which made her look even taller, and how surely she walked around, with an elegant stride not many women managed on such high heels. Her hair ondulated ever so slightly as she looked up and down, reading the titles of his books. Even if he couldn´t see her face, her interest was palpable, he could read it on her body language. She was either an avid bibliophile or trying hard to get to know something about him by analysing his personal library. Maybe both. As she approached the shelves closest to the fireplace she seemed to do a little double take and leaned in as to see more carefully. Severus smirked. Time to put an end to her fun. He poured the tea not bothering with sugar and returned to the sitting room.
Her curiosity about his books hadn´t bothered him...Actually he was faintly amused by the way she was snooping around as if his sitting room was a public library. But when Severus entered the room she was standing just in front of the fireplace, almost on her tiptoes, staring at the photographs on the mantle with vivid interest. Severus frowned. Somebody obviously had a problem grasping the concept of "privacy". He walked over with that swift and silent gait he had practised over the years on the stone floors of Hogwats, and stoped just behind her, so close he could smell the faint lavender scent that emanated from her. Still, she was so fixated on the photos that she never noticed his presence. Severus coughed loudly to get her attention. She spun around and let out a small shrill like a startled cat. As she looked up at him, her eyes were wide and her face had turned a lovely shade of crimson red.
There it was, that delightful expression of absolute fear and sheer embarrassment he had so masterfully gotten out of scores of busted students over the course of seventeen odd years as a teacher. It still felt good to see it. For whatever reason getting that out of a full grown woman felt even better.
"Your tea" He handed her the cup "I only had Hassam. I hope it´s not to strong for you"
"Hassam is just fine, thank you"
Severus stood there for a while, enjoying her subtle agitation. But after only a couple of seconds she seemed to have gathered her wits and started to look at him attentively, petulantly even, almost as if studying him. Her eyes were focused and deep. None of his students had ever had the nerve to look at him so shamelessly after being caught red-handed (except maybe the ever-insufferable Potter). Actually even most adults didn´t have the nerve to stare at him like that. Severus was well aware that her peevishness was only due to the fact that she didn´t know who he was. Most muggles wouldn´t have had the courage if they knew...But still, her gall was quite remarkable.
Time to stop playing little games. Severus turned around and walked over to his chair. From behind him her voice reached his hears, a calculated gentle intonation in the husky timbre.
"I´m sorry, I was just..."
"Sit" He cut her mid-sentence, gesturing the sofa.
"Thank you" She smiled an obviously fake smile and sat down sipping her tea, apparently not minding that there was no sugar in it.
Miss Evelyn Black had, quite clearly, underestimated his intelligence. Did she really think he couldn´t see through the smiles and the kind little "pleases" and "thank yous"? She wanted something out of him, and was determined to get it, even if it meant playing the part of the "gentle sweet maiden". And "gentle sweet maiden" she was not, that much was clear to him. She was a terrible liar, though. Her calculated words and inflexion might be meek and caressing, but the obstinate look in her eyes and the unabashed insistence that punctuated her actions told a different story. Still, he had to respect her determination to play him into doing her bidding. For such a poor liar, she seemed intelligent enough to know exactly how to play her cards...Certainly she had experience with making other people do her bidding.
"So...You were looking for my mother. May I ask where would you know her from?"
"I wouldn´t, by name. It´s a long story, really" There still playing the soft-spoken ingenue, Severus noticed, almost annoyed now.
"Then make it short" He sneered, hoping she would just drop the act and speak straightforwardly.
"Very well..." she continued, taking on a harder tone that pleased Severus a whole lot more "The house next to yours. It belonged to my grandfather."
"I don´t recall anyone owning that house...or even living there, for that matter..."
"Precisely. I don´t think he ever did live there. After he passed away we found this among his belongings" She laid her cup down on the coffee-table and reached into her purse. She then produced an old and crumbled piece of paper and handed it to him. Severus got it and ran his eyes through the elaborate calligraphy, doing a double take as he recognised the layout. It was an old muggle document, but with a layout style similar to that found on some wizarding documents, one that could be used on the wizarding legal procedures, while still being accepted by muggles, unaware of its origins. It was frequently used in negociations between muggles and wizards, whenever they took place. This one however looked quite old and had many elements that had fallen in disuse long ago, particularly the ornate borders and baroque-looking calligraphic capitals. Most of it was impossible to read and the stamps were nothing more than smudges, but the name of the owner and his elegant signature were clear enough: Marius Black.
"Marius Black..." That name...it did ring a bell...But where had Severus heard it before? "...your grandfather I suppose"
"Anyway." Evelyn carried on "It seems your house was once connected with my grandfather´s house. There were some documents and letters pertaining to a separation of the houses, probably following an inventory. It appears that my family and your mother´s family were related somehow, and the two houses were once a common property which was latter divided. I wouldn´t know the details of it, since most of my grandfather´s old papers are to old to be readable..."
Severus frowned. Clearly she had stumbled onto something she shouldn´t have. If that document had anything to do with a transaction between wizards and muggles (a transaction that seemed to have happened many decades ago) and her family had any connection to his mother´s family as she claimed, she should have know something about it. But quite obviously she didn´t. Whatever it was that this document meant, it was not for her to know. Furthermore, her having that paper and Merlin only knew whatever else she had found among her late grandfather´s belongings could mean a high risk of breaching the statute of secrecy.
"I think you must have something wrongI would have known if my mother was related to..." Related to "muggles" he almost let slip, but bit his tongue. "I mean, I know my mother´s family and there´s certainly a mistake here..."
He rested his chin on the knuckles of his right hand, making an effort to come up with something to throw her off her trail.
"As far as I can remember, Miss Black...Not a soul has ever lived in the house next door. My mother never told me anything about it belonging to any of her relations" Severus almost kicked himself, feeling dumb as a post. Was that the best he could come up with? The months of isolation must have dulled his legendarily sharp mind.
"Maybe she didn´t know of the house´s history...The two properties were severed in the 20s. But still, she should know that her family was related to mine. You see, there´s a family tree amongst my father´s old documents, with your mother´s name on it. She would have known that, no?"
There was a long silence. Severus simply sat there mulling over that story. He couldn´t quite make sense of it. Indeed he had never heard any mention to the house next door belonging to anyone. Neither had him ever heard of anyone on the pure-blood Prince family being related to any muggles. But then again if his mother had married a muggle it wasn´t impossible that other members of the family might have muggle relations. Still without getting the full picture, he had no way of knowing anything, and all he had to go on was that house deed and Evelyn Black´s story.
But what really got to him was the fact that the woman sitting in front of him was completely unaware of what the house deed could mean. Clearly, Evelyn Black had no idea of the connection her house might or might not have to the wizarding world... Her grandfather had clearly decided not to let his family know of that house and, consequently, anything, magical or not, that might be related to it. And yet, decades after the signing of that house deed, his granddaughter was there holding on to that piece of paper that could lead her to uncovering everything. And if the Wizarding world had anything to do with whatever this "everything" was, there would be trouble.
"Once again, Miss Black I would have known that. But even assuming our families are somehow related, which I find highly unlikely, is not like I can provide you with any information other than what your grandfather´s documents already have. I´m afraid your search has reached a dead end." Indeed he couldn´t provide her with any information, that much was true. But somehow he just felt that excuse wouldn´t be enough to keep her from investigating.
"Where are you from, Miss Black?" He let out, grasping at straws, trying to extract any potentialy useful information out of her.
"Ireland. County Clare." She answered, looking a little taken aback.
"You see, my mother´s family didn´t have any relatives in Ireland" He said just for the sake of saying anything. He knew she was Irish, and the new information she gave him, about County Clare didn´t add much to it, but he had to keep her talking.
"My grandfather wasn´t Irish. He was from London."
"Yes...He moved to Ireland when he was young. Which is what makes the existence of this house all the more puzzling. It seems he never left London before moving to Ireland. How come would he have a house in Cokeworth?"
"Did he ever talk about any of it?"
"He never talked about anything that happened before he went to Ireland"
"Maybe for a good reason..." Severus said, more to himself than to her.
"What do you mean?"
"Did you ever consider the very obvious possibility that he never talked about his past precisely because didn´t want anyone to know about it?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"What I´m trying to say is, Miss Black, I can´t help you. My mother is dead, as is your grandfather. What´s the point of digging up old stories?"
"The point?! Isn´t it obvious enough?...It´s my family we´re talking about here..."
"Precisely...Your family... Don´t you fear you might find something that was better left undiscovered?"
She looked at him square in the eyes, a look of self-righteous indignation splattered on her face.
"Excuse me? What are you trying to get at?"
Severus almost smiled. Just a few minutes ago she was sitting there, feigning gentleness, trying to manipulate him with sugar-coated words and batting eyelashes, but at the slightest suggestion that her little world might not be as perfect as she imagined it to be, she had just let her emotions flow with laughable ease. Leaning forward, Severus rested his elbows on his knees interlacing his fingers, and tried to give his next words the kindest, most comforting tone he could muster.
"I don´t mean to be offensive, Miss Black, and I apologize if I was. What I wanted to say is... I imagine your late grandfather might have had strong reasons not to share this information with his family. Maybe you should just respect his wishes and not pursue this."
"I appreciate your concern, Mr. Snape, but I really don´t think it´s your place to decide that " Every single word out of her mouth was dripping with contempt.
"Of course not."
"Well, in that case" She grabbed her purse and stood up. Severus stood up almost in time with her "I guess I should get going. It´s obvious you can´t help me."
"I´m terribly sorry about that."
"Don´t be. I should be the one apologizing for wasting your time" She turned on her heels swiftly and went for her coat on the wall hook. Severus followed closely, and walked past her as she headed for the door.
"Once again...I´m sorry I couldn´t help you" He opened the door for her. "But, if I may say so, do consider what I just told you."
"I will" Severus just knew she wouldn´t.
"And..." She turned to him, her foot barely out the door "If there´s anything else I can do to help you...Don´t hesitate in asking me"
"That´s kind of you...But I don´t think you´ll be able to do much to help me" She had a suspicious expression on her face, Indeed this woman was anything but stupid...And that only worried him.
"Still...I´ll see if I can find out anything that might help you. I´ll let you know if I do" He measured every word in order to make it sound gentle but not too sweet or too interested.
As he closed the heavy wooden door behind him, Severus Snape smiled to himself.
Finally he had found something interesting to do with his time.