“ . . . perfect Babel,” Mr. Coningsby said peevishly, threw himself into a chair, and took up the evening paper. “But Babel never was perfect, was it?” Nancy said to her brother in a low voice, yet not so low that her father could not hear if he chose. He did not choose, because at the moment he could not think of a sufficiently short sentence; a minute afterwards it occurred to him that he might have said, “Then it’s perfect now.” But it didn’t matter; Nancy would only have been rude again, and her brother too. Children were. He looked at his sister, who was reading on the other side of the fire. She looked comfortable and interested, so he naturally decided to disturb her.
“And what have you been doing today, Sybil?” he asked, with an insincere good will, and as she looked up he thought angrily, “Her skin’s getting clearer every day.”
“Why, nothing very much,” Sybil Coningsby said. “I did some shopping, and I made a cake, and went for a walk and changed the library books. And since tea I’ve been reading.”
“Nice day,” Mr. Coningsby answered, between a question and a sneer, wishing it hadn’t been, though he was aware that if it hadn’t been . . . but then it was certain to have been. Sybil always seemed to have nice days. He looked at his paper again. “I see the Government are putting a fresh duty on dried fruits,” he snorted.
Sybil tried to say something, and failed. She was getting stupid, she thought, or (more probably) lazy. There ought to be something to say about the Government putting a duty on dried fruits. Nancy spoke instead.
“You’re slow, auntie,” she said. “The correct answer is: ‘I suppose that means that the price will go up!’ The reply to that is, ‘Everything goes up under this accursed Government!’”
“Will you please let me do my own talking, Nancy?” her father snapped at her.
“Then I wish you’d talk something livelier than the Dead March in Saul,” Nancy said.
“You’re out of date again, Nancy,” jeered her brother. “Nobody plays that old thing nowadays.”
“Go to hell!” said Nancy.
Mr. Coningsby immediately stood up. “Nancy, you shall not use such language in this house,” he called out.
“O, very well,” Nancy said, walked to the window, opened it, put her head out, and said to the world, but (it annoyed her to feel) in a more subdued voice, “Go to hell.” She pulled in her head and shut the window. “There, father,” she said, “that wasn’t in the house.”
Sybil Coningsby said equably, “Nancy, you’re in a bad temper.”
“And suppose I am?” Nancy answered. “Who began it?”
“Don’t answer your aunt back,” said Mr. Coningsby, still loudly. “She at least is a lady.”
“She’s more,” said Nancy. “She’s a saint. And I’m a worm and the child of . . . ”
She abandoned the sentence too late. Her father picked up his paper, walked to the door, turned his head, uttered, “If I am wanted, Sybil, I shall be in my study,” and went out. Ralph grinned at Nancy; their aunt looked at them both with a wise irony.
“What energy!” she murmured, and Nancy looked back at her, half in anger, half in admiration.
“Doesn’t father ever annoy you, auntie?” she asked.
“No, my dear,” Miss Coningsby said.
“Don’t we ever annoy you?” Nancy asked again.
“No, my dear,” Miss Coningsby said.
“Doesn’t anyone ever annoy you, aunt?” Ralph took up the chant.
“Hardly at all,” Miss Coningsby said. “What extraordinary ideas you children have! Why should anyone annoy me?”
“Well, we annoy father all right,” Nancy remarked, “and I never mean to when I begin. But Ralph and I weren’t making all that noise — and anyhow Babel wasn’t perfect.”
Sybil Coningsby picked up her book again. “My dear Nancy, you never do begin; you just happen along,” she said, and dropped her eyes so resolutely to her page that Nancy hesitated to ask her what she meant.
The room was settling back into the quiet which had filled it before Mr. Coningsby’s arrival, when the bell of the front door rang. Nancy sprang to her feet and ran into the hall. “Right, Agnes,” she sang: “I’ll see to it.”
“That’ll be Henry,” Ralph said as she disappeared. “Wasn’t he coming to dinner?”
“Yes,” his aunt murmured without looking up. One of the things about Sybil Coningsby that occasionally annoyed other people — Ralph among them — was her capacity for saying, quite simply, “Yes” or “No”, and stopping there, rather as if at times she were literally following Christ’s maxim about conversation. She would talk socially, if necessary, and sociably, if the chance arose, but she seemed to be able to manage without saying a lot of usual things. There was thus, to her acquaintances, a kind of blank about her; the world for a moment seemed with a shock to disappear and they were left in a distasteful void.
“Your aunt,” Mr. Coningsby had once said, “has no small talk. It’s a pity.” Ralph had agreed: Nancy had not, and there had been one of those continual small rows which at once annoyed and appeased their father. Annoyed him — for they hurt his dignity; appeased him — for they at least gave him a dignity to be hurt. He was somebody then for a few minutes; he was not merely a curiously festering consciousness. It was true he was also a legal officer of standing — a Warden in Lunacy. But — his emotions worried him with a question which his intellect refused to define — what, what exactly was the satisfaction of being a Warden in Lunacy? Fifty-eight; fifty-nine. But Sybil was older; she was over sixty. Perhaps in a few years this gnawing would pass. She was contented: no doubt time would put him also at peace.
He was not thinking of this while he sat in the room they called his study, looking at the evening paper and waiting for dinner. He was thinking how shameful Nancy’s behaviour had been. She lacked respect, she lacked modesty, she almost lacked decency. All that he had done . . . no doubt her engagement to — her understanding with — whatever it was she had along with this young Henry Lee fellow — had hardened her. There had been a rather vague confidence, a ring had appeared, so had Henry quite often. But to what the engagement was tending or of what the understanding was capable — that Mr. Coningsby could not or had not been allowed to grasp. He sat thinking of it, consoling himself with the reflection that one day she’d be sorry. She wasn’t . . . she was . . . confused; all confused . . . confusion confounded . . . yes . . . Suddenly Nancy was in the room —“Look here, old thing”— no, he wasn’t asleep; she was saying it. He hated to be discovered asleep just before dinner; perhaps she hadn’t noticed —“and all that. Come and talk to Henry a minute before we eat.”
If her father had been quite clear how far the apology had gone, he would have known whether he might reasonably accept it. But he wasn’t, and he didn’t want to argue because of not having been asleep. So he made a noise in his throat and got up, adding with a princely magnanimity, “But don’t be rude to your aunt: I won’t tolerate that.”
Nancy, glowing with her past brief conversation with Henry, and looking forward to the immediate future with zest, subdued an inclination to point out that it was she who had called Sybil a saint, and they both returned to the drawing-room.
Although Mr. Coningsby had known his daughter’s fiancé— if indeed he were that — for some months now, he still felt a slight shock at seeing him. For to him Henry Lee, in spite of being a barrister — a young, a briefless barrister, but a barrister — was so obviously a gipsy that his profession seemed as if it must be assumed for a sinister purpose. He was fairly tall and dark-haired and dark-skinned, and his eyes were bright and darting; and his soft collar looked almost like a handkerchief coiled round his throat, only straighter, and his long fingers, with their quick secret movements —“Hen-roosts,” Mr. Coningsby thought, as he had thought before. A nice thing for Nancy to be tramping the roads — and Nancy was a gipsy name. That was her mother’s fault. Names had for him a horrid attraction, largely owing to his own, which was Lothair. That disastrous name had to do with his father’s godmother, a rich old lady with a passionate admiration for Lord Beaconsfield. To please that admiration her godson’s first child had been named Sybil; the second Lothair. It might have been Tancred or Alroy; it might even have been Endymion. Mr. Coningsby himself allowed that Endymion Coningsby would have been worse. The other titles would no doubt have been allocated in turn, but for two facts; first, that the godmother abandoned politics for religion and spent large sums of money on Anglican sisterhoods; second, that there were no more children. But the younger was at once there, and there too soon to benefit by the conversion which would have saved others. Lothair — always, through a document-signing, bank-corresponding, cheque-drawing, letter-writing, form-filling, addressed, directoried, and important life, always Lothair Coningsby. If only he could have been called Henry Lee!
He thought so once more as they settled to dinner. He thought so through the soup. Something had always been unfair to him, luck or fate or something. Some people were like that, beaten through no fault of their own, wounded before the battle began; not everybody would have done so well as he had. But how it dogged him — that ghastly luck! Even in the last month Duncannon (and everyone knew that Duncannon was well off) had left him . . . no honest, useful, sincere legacy, but a collection of playing-cards, with a request that it should be preserved intact by his old friend, the legatee, Lothair Coningsby, and a further request that at the said legatee’s death the collection should be presented to the British Museum. About that the legatee refused to think; some of the packs were, he believed, rather valuable. But for a couple of years or so, or anyhow for a year, nothing could be done: too many people knew of it. There had even been a paragraph in one of the papers. He couldn’t sell them — Mr. Coningsby flinched as the word struck him for the first time — not yet awhile anyhow.
“Father,” Nancy said, “will you show us Mr. Duncannon’s playing-cards after dinner?” Mr. Coningsby just checked a vicious sneer. “Henry,” Nancy went on, “saw about them in the papers.” Mr. Coningsby saw a gipsy reading torn scraps of newspapers under a hedge. “And he knows something about cards. What a lot you do know, Henry!” Yes, in a fair, cheating yokels out of their pennies by tricks or fortune-telling: which card is the pea under? Something like that, anyhow. Bah!
“My dear,” he said, “it’s rather a painful business. Duncannon was my dear friend.”
“Still, father, if you would . . . He’d have loved people to be interested.”
Mr. Coningsby, looking up suddenly, caught a swift, tender smile on Sybil’s face, and wondered what she was grinning at. Nancy had hit on the one undeniable fact about the late Mr. Duncannon, and he couldn’t think of any way of getting round it. But why should Sybil be amused?
“I’d be very grateful if you would, sir,” the young man said. “I do find them interesting — it’s in my blood, I suppose,” he added, laughing at Nancy.
“And can you tell fortunes? Can you tell mine?” she answered joyously.
“Some by cards and some by hands,” he said, “and some by the stars.”
“O, I can tell some by hands,” she answered. “I’ve told father’s and auntie’s. Only I can’t understand father’s line of life — it seems to stop at about forty, yet here he is still alive.” Mr. Coningsby, feeling more like a death’s head than a living Warden in Lunacy, looked down again.
“And Miss Coningsby’s?” Henry asked, bowing towards her.
“O, auntie’s goes on for ever, as far as I can see,” Nancy answered, “right round under the finger.”
Henry for a moment looked at Sybil a little oddly, but he said nothing, and the chatter about palmistry was lost in Ralph’s dominating the conversation with an announcement that those things, like Spiritualism, were all great rubbish. “How can you tell from the palm of my hand whether I’m going to be ill at fifty or have a fortune left me at sixty or go to Zanzibar at seventy?”
“Hands are strange things,” Henry said. “Nobody knows very much about them yet.”
“Eh?” said Ralph, surprised.
“Auntie’s got the loveliest hands I ever saw,” Nancy said, sending a side-glance at Henry, and meeting the quick astonishment of his eyebrows. This being what he was meant to show — because she did think she had good hands, the rest of her being tolerable but unnoticeable, hair, face, figure, and everything — she allowed her own hand for a moment to touch his, and added, “Look at them.”
They all looked, even Sybil herself, who said softly, “They are rather nice, aren’t they?”
Her brother thought privately that this remark was in execrable taste; one didn’t praise one’s own belongings, still less oneself. What would people think if he said his face was “rather nice”?
“They’re dears,” said Nancy.
“Jolly good,” said Ralph.
“They’re extremely beautiful,” said Henry.
“There’s a very striking hand in the British Museum,” Mr. Coningsby said, feeling the time had come for him to break silence, “belonging to an Egyptian king or something. Just a giant head and then in front of it a great arm with the fist closed — so.” He illustrated.
“I know it, sir,” Henry said, “the hand of the image of Rameses: it is a hand of power.”
“The hand of power! I thought that was something to do with murderers; no, of course, that was glory,” Nancy said, adding immediately, “And now, father, do let’s look at the cards while we have coffee.”
Mr. Coningsby, seeing no easy way out, gloomily assented. “Where did you have them put, Sybil?” he asked as the whole party rose.
“In the chest in your study,” she answered. “The catalogue’s with them.”
“Catalogue?” Ralph said. “He did it in style, didn’t he? Fancy me making a catalogue of my old tennis racquets.”
“These cards,” Mr. Coningsby said with considerable restraint, “were not worn-out toys. They are a very valuable and curious collection of remarkable cards, gathered together with considerable difficulty and in some sense, I believe, priceless.”
Nancy pinched Henry’s arm as they followed their father from the dining-room. “The dear!” she said. “I’ve heard him say the same thing himself, before they belonged to him.”
Ralph was whistling. “O, but I say now, priceless?” he said. “That’d be pretty valuable, wouldn’t it?”
“I don’t know exactly what the value would be to collectors, but considerable,” Mr. Coningsby said as he opened the large wooden chest, and then, thinking of the British Museum, added in a more sullen voice, “Considerable.”
Sybil took from the chest a fat writing-book. “Well, shall I read the descriptions?” she asked. “If someone will call out the numbers.” For each pack was contained in a special little leather cover, with a place on it for a white slip containing a number.
“Right ho!” Ralph said. “I’ll call out the numbers. Are they in order? It doesn’t look like it. Number ninety-four.”
“I think I will read, Sybil,” Mr. Coningsby said. “I’ve heard Duncannon talk of them often and it’s more suitable. Perhaps you’d pick them up and call the numbers out. And then the young people can look at them.”
“Give me that chair, then, if you will, Henry,” Sybil assented. Her brother sat down on the other side of a small table, and “the young people” thronged round it.
“Number — ” Sybil began and paused. “Ralph, if you wouldn’t mind going on the same side as Nancy and Henry, I could see too.”
Ralph obeyed, unaware that this movement, while removing an obstacle from his aunt’s gaze, also removed his own from the two lovers. Sybil, having achieved the maximum of effort, said again, “Number —”
“I didn’t think you’d be very interested, aunt,” Ralph, with a belated sense of apology, threw in.
Sybil smiled at him and said again, “Number —”
“I have never known your aunt not be interested in anything, my boy,” Mr. Coningsby said severely, looking up, but more at Sybil than at Ralph, as if he were inclined to add, “and how the devil she does it I can’t think!”
“Darling,” said Nancy, “aunt’s a perfect miracle, but can’t we leave her for now and get on with the cards?”
“We are on the point of ‘getting on’ with them, as you call it, Nancy,” her father answered. “I wish you’d remember this is something of an ordeal to me, and treat it more seriously.”
Nancy’s hand, under the table, squeezed its impatience into Henry’s and relieved her tongue. When the momentary silence had achieved seriousness but had not reached self-consciousness, Sybil’s voice collected and, as it were, concluded it with the words, “Number ninety-four”.
“Ninety-four,” Mr. Coningsby read out, “‘French; circa 1789 — Supposed to have been designed by David. A special Revolutionary symbolism. In this pack the Knaves are painted as a peasant, a beggar, an aubergiste, and a sansculotte respectively; the Queens (Marie Antoinette) have each a red line round the neck, as if guillotined; the Kings are reversed; over the ace is the red cap of liberty. Round the edge of each card is the legend, La Republique, une, libre, indivisible.’”
“Number nine,” Sybil said, and put down another pack.
“Nine,” read Mr. Coningsby. “‘Spanish pack, eighteenth century. The Court cards are ecclesiastical — cardinals, bishops, and priests. It is unlikely that this pack was ever used for playing; probably it was painted as an act of devotion or thanksgiving. See Appendix for possible portraits.’”
“Number three hundred and forty-one,” Sybil said.
“‘Most rare’,” Mr. Coningsby read. “‘Very early pack of Tarot cards. I have not been able to trace the origin of these; they have some resemblances to a fifteenth-century pack now in the Louvre, but would seem to be even earlier. The material of which they are made is unusual — papyrus? The four suits are, as usual, sceptres, swords, cups, and coins; the Greater Trumps are in the following order (numbered at the foot in Roman): (i) The Juggler, (ii) The Empress, (iii) The High Priestess, or Woman Pope —’”
“The what?” Nancy exclaimed. “What! Pope Joan? Sorry, father, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“’(iv) The Pope — or Hierophant, (v) The Emperor — or Ruler, (vi) The Chariot, (vii) The Lovers, (viii) The Hermit, (ix) Temperance, (x) Fortitude, (xi) Justice, (xii) The Wheel of Fortune, (xiii) The Hanged Man.’”
“Jolly game of bridge we could have with these,” Ralph remarked. “I lead the Hanged Man.”
There was a tremendous pause. “Ralph, if you can only make fun —” Mr. Coningsby began, and stopped.
“Do go on,” Sybil Coningsby’s voice implored. “I should have had to say something silly if Ralph hadn’t. It’s so exciting.”
Mr. Coningsby gave a suppressed grunt, fortunately missed Nancy’s low-breathed comment on it “The Hanged Man!”— and proceeded.
“’(xiv) Death, (xv) The Devil, (xvi) The Falling Tower, (xvii) The Star, (xviii) The Moon, (xix) The Sun, (xx) The Last Judgement —’”
Mr. Coningsby paused to shift his eyeglasses; in a perfect silence the others waited.
“’(xxi) The Universe, (o) The Fool.’”
“Nought usually comes at the beginning,” Ralph said.
“Not necessarily,” said Sybil. “It might come anywhere. Nought isn’t a number at all. It’s the opposite of number.”
Nancy looked up from the cards. “Got you, aunt,” she said. “What about ten? Nought’s a number there — it’s part of ten.”
“Quite right, Nancy,” Mr. Coningsby said with something like pleasure. “I think the child has you, Sybil.”
“Well, if you say that any mathematical arrangement of one and nought really makes ten —” Sybil smiled. “Can it possibly be more than a way of representing ten?”
“It doesn’t matter, anyhow,” Nancy hastily said. “Aren’t they fascinating? But why are they? And what do they all mean? Henry, why are you looking at them like that?”
Henry indeed was examining the first card, the juggler, with close attention, as if investigating the smallest detail. It was a man in a white tunic, but the face, tilted back, was foreshortened, and darkened by the brim of some black cap that he wore: a cap so black that something of night itself seemed to have been used in the painting. The heavy shadow and the short pointed beard hid the face from the observer. On the breast of the tunic were three embroidered circles — the first made of swords and staffs and cups and coins, balanced one on the other from the coin at the bottom to the apex of two pointing swords at the top; and within this was a circle, so far as Nancy could see, made up of rounded representations of twenty of the superior cards each in its own round; and within that was a circle containing one figure, but that was so small she couldn’t make out what it was. The man was apparently supposed to be juggling; one hand was up in the air, one was low and open towards the ground, and between them, in an arch, as if tossed and caught and tossed again, were innumerable shining balls. In the top left-hand corner of the card was a complex device of curiously interwoven lines.
Henry put it down slowly as Nancy spoke and turned his eyes to her. But hers, as they looked to plunge into that other depth — ocean pouring into ocean and itself receiving ocean — found themselves thwarted. Instead of oceans they saw pools, abandoned by a tide already beyond sight: she blenched as a bather might do in the cold wind across an empty shore. “Henry!” she exclaimed.
It was, surely, no such great thing, only a momentary preoccupation. But he was already glancing again at the cards; he had already picked up another, and was scrutinizing the figure of the hierophantic woman. It had been drawn sitting on an ancient throne between two heavy pillars; a cloud of smoke rolled high above the priestly head-dress and solemn veil that she wore, and under her feet were rivers pouring out in falling cataracts. One hand was stretched out as if directing the flow of those waters; the other lay on a heavy open volume, with great clasps undone, that rested on her knees. This card also was stamped in the top left-hand corner with an involved figure of intermingled lines.
“Well!” said Nancy, as she stared at it.
“But, look here,” Ralph asked, “does one play with them, or what?” He peered over Henry’s shoulder. “Old Maid, I suppose; and Beggar my Neighbour with the first.”
“They’re very wonderfully done, aren’t they?” Sybil Coningsby asked, and herself delicately picked up one of what her brother had called the Greater Trumps. It was the nineteenth card — that named the Sun — and was perfectly simple: the sun shone full in a clear sky, and two children — a boy and a girl — played happily below. Sybil smiled again as she contemplated them. “Aren’t they the loveliest things?” she breathed, and indeed they were so vivid, so intense, so rapturous under that beneficent light, of which some sort of reflection passed into Sybil’s own face while she brooded. Or so it seemed to Henry, who had put down his card when Ralph spoke and over Nancy’s bent head was now watching her aunt. Sybil looked up and saw him. “Aren’t they perfect, Henry?” she asked.
“They are very, very fine,” Lee said, and yet seemed a little puzzled, as if he had expected something, but not quite that.
“But what — are — they — all — about?” Ralph asked. “What’s the idea of it?”
“Duncannon used to tell me,” Mr. Coningsby said; he had put down his catalogue now, and was standing by the table with the others; his high, bald forehead gleaming a little in the light, his thin, dissatisfied face bent towards the pack, “that the Tarot cards were an invention of the fourteenth century, though supposed by some to be Egyptian.” He stopped, as if everything were explained.
“Stupendous bit of work — inventing them,” Ralph said gravely. “But why did anyone bother? What I mean — it seems rather . . . rather needless, doesn’t it?”
“We have a tale about them,” Henry Lee began, with a cautious ease, and Mr. Coningsby said, “We?”
Ever so slightly the young man flushed. “I mean the gipsies,” he answered lightly, and added to Nancy, “That’s your fault, darling, for always pretending that I’m a real gipsy with a caravan, a tin kettle, and a grandmother with a black pipe.”
“Wouldn’t she love these cards?” Nancy said enthusiastically “Henry, darling, do have a grandmother, so that she can tell us stories about Tarots, and perhaps even tell fortunes with — what did you call them, father? — the Greater Trumps.”
“Well,” said Ralph, abandoning the whole subject, “shall we look at some more?”
“At least, I’ve a grandfather —” Henry said to Nancy; but “O, a grandfather!” she mocked him. “But he lives in a house with electric light, doesn’t he? Not in a caravan under the moon. Still, can he tell us what this is?” She picked up the last card, that numbered nought, and exhibited it. It might have needed some explanation, for it was obscure enough. It was painted with the figure of a young man, clothed in an outlandish dress of four striped colours — black and grey and silver and red; his legs and feet and arms and hands were bare, and he had over one shoulder a staff, carved into serpentine curves, that carried a round bag, not unlike the balls with which the juggler played. The bag rested against his shoulder, so that as he stood there he supported as well as bore it. Before him a dragon-fly, or some such airy creature, danced; by his side a larger thing, a lynx or young tiger, stretched itself up to him — whether in affection or attack could not be guessed, so poised between both the beast stood. The man’s eyes were very bright; he was smiling, and the smile was so intense and rapt that those looking at it felt a quick motion of contempt — no sane man could be as happy as that. He was painted as if pausing in his stride, and there was no scenic background; he and his were seen against a flatness of dull gold.
“No,” said Henry, “that’s the difficulty — at least, it’s the unknown factor.”
“The unknown factor in what?” Mr. Coningsby asked.
“In —” Henry paused a second, then he added, “in telling fortunes by the Tarots. There are different systems, you know, but none of them is quite convincing in what it does with the Fool. They all treat it as if it were to be added to the Greater Trumps — making twenty-two.”
“So there are twenty-two,” Mr. Coningsby said. “I’ve just read them out.”
“No, sir,” Henry answered, almost reluctantly, “not exactly. Strictly there are the twenty-one and the nought. As Miss Coningsby said. And you see the nought — well, it’s nought — nothing, unaccountable.”
“Well, shall we look at some more?” Ralph asked.
“Can you tell fortunes by them?” Nancy said eagerly, but Henry shook his head.
“Not properly,” he answered; “at least, I’d rather not try. It can be done; my grandfather might know. They are very curious cards, and this is a very curious pack.”
“Why are they curious cards?” Nancy went on questioning.
Henry, still staring at them, answered, “It’s said that the shuffling of the cards is the earth, and the pattering of the cards is the rain, and the beating of the cards is the wind, and the pointing of the cards is the fire. That’s of the four suits. But the Greater Trumps, it’s said, are the meaning of all process and the measure of the everlasting dance.”
“Some folk-lore survival, I suppose?” Mr. Coningsby said, wishing that his daughter hadn’t got herself mixed up with a fellow very much like a folk-lore survival.
“Certainly it may be that, sir,” the young man answered, “from the tales my people used to tell round their fires while they were vagabonds.”
“It sounds frightfully thrilling,” Nancy said. “What is the everlasting dance, Henry darling?”
He put his arm round her as Mr. Coningsby turned back to his chair. “Don’t you know?” he whispered. “Look at the seventh card.”
She obeyed; and on it, under the stamped monogram, she saw the two lovers, each aureoled, each with hands stretched out; each clad in some wild beast’s skin, dancing side by side down a long road, that ran from a far-off point right down to the foreground. Her hand closed on Henry’s and she smiled at him. “Just that?” she said.
“That’s at least the first movement,” he answered; “unless you go with the hermit.”
“Sybil, I’m waiting,” Mr. Coningsby said, and Sybil hastily picked up another pack, while Ralph very willingly collected and put away the Tarots.
But the interest had flagged. Henry and Nancy were preoccupied, Mr. Coningsby and his son were beginning to be bored, and in a few minutes Sybil said pleasantly, “Don’t you all think we’ve looked at about enough for to-night?”
“She really does know when to stop,” Mr. Coningsby thought to himself, but he only said cheerfully, “Just as you like, just as you like. What do you say, Henry?”
“Eh? . . . O, just as you like,” Henry agreed with a start.
“I vote we push them back then,” Ralph said, even more cheerfully than his father. “Jolly good collection. But those what-you-may-call-them are the star lot.”
Hours later, by the door, the sight of a single star low in the heavens brought one of the “what-you-may-call-thems” back to Nancy’s mind. “O, and darling,” she said, “will you teach me how to tell fortunes by those other cards — you know, the special ones?”
“The Tarots?” Henry asked her, with a touch of irony in his voice.
“If that’s what you call them,” she said. “I can do a bit by the ordinary ones.”
“Have you got the sleight of hand for it?” he asked. “You have to feel how the cards are going, and let yourself do what they mean.”
Nancy looked at her hands, and flexed them. “I don’t see why not, unless you have to do it very quickly. Do try me, Henry sweet.”
He took both her hands in one of his. “We’ll try, darling,” he answered; “we’ll try what you can do with the Greater Trumps. If it’s the pack I think it is. Tell me, do you think your father would ever sell them to me?”
“Why? Do you want them?” she asked in surprise. “Henry, I believe you’re a real gipsy after all! Will you disguise yourself and go to the races? O, let’s, and I’ll be the gipsy maiden. ‘Kind sir, kind sir,’” she trilled, “and everyone’ll cross my palm with pound notes because I’m so beautiful, and perhaps the King will kiss me before all the Court ladies. Would you like that? He might give me a diamond ring too, and you could show it to the judges when they came to tea. No, don’t tell me they won’t, because when you’re a judge they will, and you’ll all talk about your cases till I shall only have the diamond ring to think about and how the King of England once gave it to Nancy the little gipsy girl, before she became Lady Lee, and tried to soften her husband’s hard heart for the poor prisoners — the ruffians — the police brought to him. So when you see me dreaming you’ll know what I’m dreaming of, and you must never, never interrupt.”
“I don’t really have much chance, do I?” Henry asked.
“O, cruel!” she said, “to mock your Nancy so! Will you call me a chatterbox before all the world? or shall I always talk to you on my fingers — like that?”— they gleamed before him, shaping the letters —“and tell you on them what shop I’ve been to each day, as if I were dumb and you were deaf?”
He caught a hand in one of his, and lightly struck the fingers of his other over its palm. “Don’t flaunt your beauties,” he said, “or when I’m a judge you’ll be before me charged with having a proud heart, and I’ll send you to spoil your hands doing laundry-work in a prison.”
“Then I’ll trap the governor’s son, and escape,” she said, “and make a ballad of a wicked judge, and how first he beat and then shut up his own true sweetheart. Darling, you must be getting on. I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I? O, good night. Do go home and sleep well. Good night. Don’t let anything happen to you, will you?”
“I’ll stop it at once,” he said. “If anything starts to happen, I’ll be very angry with it.”
“Do,” she said, “for I don’t want anything to happen ever any more. O, good night — why aren’t you gone? It doesn’t take you long to get home, does it? You’ll be asleep by midnight.”
But when she herself fell asleep Henry was driving his car out of London southward, and it was long past midnight before he stopped it at a lonely house among the Downs.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02