Cousin Pons/Section 8

"Cibot!" panted the portress as she entered the lodge. "Oh, my dear, our fortune is made. My two gentlemen haven't nobody to come after them, no natural children, no nothing, in short! Oh, I shall go round to Ma'am Fontaine's and get her to tell my fortune on the cards, then we shall know how much we are going to have—"

"Wife," said the little tailor, "it's ill counting on dead men's shoes."

"Oh, I say, are you going to worry me?" asked she, giving her spouse a playful tap. "I know what I know! Dr. Poulain has given up M. Pons. And we are going to be rich! My name will be down in the will. . . . I'll see to that. Draw your needle in and out, and look after the lodge; you will not do it for long now. We will retire, and go into the country, out at Batignolles. A nice house and a fine garden; you will amuse yourself with gardening, and I shall keep a servant!"

"Well, neighbor, and how are things going on upstairs?" The words were spoken with the thick Auvergnat accent, and Remonencq put his head in at the door. "Do you know what the collection is worth?"

"No, no, not yet. One can't go at that rate, my good man. I have begun, myself, by finding out more important things—"

"More important!" exclaimed Remonencq; "why, what things can be more important?"

"Come, let me do the steering, ragamuffin," said La Cibot authoritatively.

"But thirty per cent on seven hundred thousand francs," persisted the dealer in old iron; "you could be your own mistress for the rest of your days on that."

"Be easy, Daddy Remonencq; when we want to know the value of the things that the old man has got together, then we will see."

La Cibot went for the medicine ordered by Dr. Poulain, and put off her consultation with Mme. Fontaine until the morrow; the oracle's faculties would be fresher and clearer in the morning, she thought; and she would go early, before everybody else came, for there was often a crowd at Mme. Fontaine's.

Mme. Fontaine was at this time the oracle of the Marais; she had survived the rival of forty years, the celebrated Mlle. Lenormand. No one imagines the part that fortune-tellers play among Parisians of the lower classes, nor the immense influence which they exert over the uneducated; general servants, portresses, kept women, workmen, all the many in Paris who live on hope, consult the privileged beings who possess the mysterious power of reading the future.

The belief of the occult science is far more widely spread than scholars, lawyers, doctors, magistrates, and philosophers imagine. The instincts of the people are ineradicable. One among those instincts, so foolishly styled "superstition," runs in the blood of the populace, and tinges no less the intellects of better educated folk. More than one French statesman has been known to consult the fortune-teller's cards. For sceptical minds, astrology, in French, so oddly termed astrologie judiciare, is nothing more than a cunning device for making a profit out of one of the strongest of all the instincts of human nature—to wit, curiosity. The sceptical mind consequently denies that there is any connection between human destiny and the prognostications obtained by the seven or eight principal methods known to astrology; and the occult sciences, like many natural phenomena, are passed over by the freethinker or the materialist philosopher, id est, by those who believe in nothing but visible and tangible facts, in the results given by the chemist's retort and the scales of modern physical science. The occult sciences still exist; they are at work, but they make no progress, for the greatest intellects of two centuries have abandoned the field.

If you only look at the practical side of divination, it seems absurd to imagine that events in a man's past life and secrets known only to himself can be represented on the spur of the moment by a pack of cards which he shuffles and cuts for the fortune-teller to lay out in piles according to certain mysterious rules; but then the steam-engine was condemned as absurd, aerial navigation is still said to be absurd, so in their time were the inventions of gunpowder, printing, spectacles, engraving, and that latest discovery of all—the daguerreotype. If any man had come to Napoleon to tell him that a building or a figure is at all times and in all places represented by an image in the atmosphere, that every existing object has a spectral intangible double which may become visible, the Emperor would have sent his informant to Charenton for a lunatic, just as Richelieu before his day sent that Norman martyr, Salomon de Caux, to the Bicetre for announcing his immense triumph, the idea of navigation by steam. Yet Daguerre's discovery amounts to nothing more nor less than this.

And if for some clairvoyant eyes God has written each man's destiny over his whole outward and visible form, if a man's body is the record of his fate, why should not the hand in a manner epitomize the body?—since the hand represents the deed of man, and by his deeds he is known.

Herein lies the theory of palmistry. Does not Society imitate God? At the sight of a soldier we can predict that he will fight; of a lawyer, that he will talk; of a shoemaker, that he shall make shoes or boots; of a worker of the soil, that he shall dig the ground and dung it; and is it a more wonderful thing that such an one with the "seer's" gift should foretell the events of a man's life from his hand?

To take a striking example. Genius is so visible in a man that a great artist cannot walk about the streets of Paris but the most ignorant people are conscious of his passing. He is a sun, as it were, in the mental world, shedding light that colors everything in its path. And who does not know an idiot at once by an impression the exact opposite of the sensation of the presence of genius? Most observers of human nature in general, and Parisian nature in particular, can guess the profession or calling of the man in the street.

The mysteries of the witches' Sabbath, so wonderfully painted in the sixteenth century, are no mysteries for us. The Egyptian ancestors of that mysterious people of Indian origin, the gypsies of the present day, simply used to drug their clients with hashish, a practice that fully accounts for broomstick rides and flights up the chimney, the real-seeming visions, so to speak, of old crones transformed into young damsels, the frantic dances, the exquisite music, and all the fantastic tales of devil-worship.

So many proven facts have been first discovered by occult science, that some day we shall have professors of occult science, as we already have professors of chemistry and astronomy. It is even singular that here in Paris, where we are founding chairs of Mantchu and Slave and literatures so little professable (to coin a word) as the literatures of the North (which, so far from providing lessons, stand very badly in need of them); when the curriculum is full of the everlasting lectures on Shakespeare and the sixteenth century,—it is strange that some one has not restored the teaching of the occult philosophies, once the glory of the University of Paris, under the title of anthropology. Germany, so childlike and so great, has outstripped France in this particular; in Germany they have professors of a science of far more use than a knowledge of the heterogeneous philosophies, which all come to the same thing at bottom.

Once admit that certain beings have the power of discerning the future in its germ-form of the Cause, as the great inventor sees a glimpse of the industry latent in his invention, or a science in something that happens every day unnoticed by ordinary eyes—once allow this, and there is nothing to cause an outcry in such phenomena, no violent exception to nature's laws, but the operation of a recognized faculty; possibly a kind of mental somnambulism, as it were. If, therefore, the hypothesis upon which the various ways of divining the future are based seem absurd, the facts remain. Remark that it is not really more wonderful that the seer should foretell the chief events of the future than that he should read the past. Past and future, on the sceptic's system, equally lie beyond the limits of knowledge. If the past has left traces behind it, it is not improbable that future events have, as it were, their roots in the present.

If a fortune-teller gives you minute details of past facts known only to yourself, why should he not foresee the events to be produced by existing causes? The world of ideas is cut out, so to speak, on the pattern of the physical world; the same phenomena should be discernible in both, allowing for the difference of the medium. As, for instance, a corporeal body actually projects an image upon the atmosphere—a spectral double detected and recorded by the daguerreotype; so also ideas, having a real and effective existence, leave an impression, as it were, upon the atmosphere of the spiritual world; they likewise produce effects, and exist spectrally (to coin a word to express phenomena for which no words exist), and certain human beings are endowed with the faculty of discerning these "forms" or traces of ideas.

As for the material means employed to assist the seer—the objects arranged by the hands of the consultant that the accidents of his life may be revealed to him,—this is the least inexplicable part of the process. Everything in the material world is part of a series of causes and effects. Nothing happens without a cause, every cause is a part of a whole, and consequently the whole leaves its impression on the slightest accident. Rabelais, the greatest mind among moderns, resuming Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Aristophanes, and Dante, pronounced three centuries ago that "man is a microcosm"—a little world. Three hundred years later, the great seer Swedenborg declared that "the world was a man." The prophet and the precursor of incredulity meet thus in the greatest of all formulas.

Everything in human life is predestined, so it is also with the existence of the planet. The least event, the most futile phenomena, are all subordinate parts of a scheme. Great things, therefore, great designs, and great thoughts are of necessity reflected in the smallest actions, and that so faithfully, that should a conspirator shuffle and cut a pack of playing-cards, he will write the history of his plot for the eyes of the seer styled gypsy, fortune-teller, charlatan, or what not. If you once admit fate, which is to say, the chain of links of cause and effect, astrology has a locus standi, and becomes what it was of yore, a boundless science, requiring the same faculty of deduction by which Cuvier became so great, a faculty to be exercised spontaneously, however, and not merely in nights of study in the closet.

For seven centuries astrology and divination have exercised an influence not only (as at present) over the uneducated, but over the greatest minds, over kings and queens and wealthy people. Animal magnetism, one of the great sciences of antiquity, had its origin in occult philosophy; chemistry is the outcome of alchemy; phrenology and neurology are no less the fruit of similar studies. The first illustrious workers in these, to all appearance, untouched fields, made one mistake, the mistake of all inventors; that is to say, they erected an absolute system on a basis of isolated facts for which modern analysis as yet cannot account. The Catholic Church, the law of the land, and modern philosophy, in agreement for once, combined to prescribe, persecute, and ridicule the mysteries of the Cabala as well as the adepts; the result is a lamentable interregnum of a century in occult philosophy. But the uneducated classes, and not a few cultivated people (women especially), continue to pay a tribute to the mysterious power of those who can raise the veil of the future; they go to buy hope, strength, and courage of the fortune-teller; in other words, to ask of him all that religion alone can give. So the art is still practised in spite of a certain amount of risk. The eighteenth century encyclopaedists procured tolerance for the sorcerer; he is no longer amenable to a court of law, unless, indeed, he lends himself to fraudulent practices, and frightens his "clients" to extort money from them, in which case he may be prosecuted on a charge of obtaining money under false pretences. Unluckily, the exercise of the sublime art is only too often used as a method of obtaining money under false pretences, and for the following reasons.

The seer's wonderful gifts are usually bestowed upon those who are described by the epithets rough and uneducated. The rough and uneducated are the chosen vessels into which God pours the elixirs at which we marvel. From among the rough and uneducated, prophets arise—an Apostle Peter, or St. Peter the Hermit. Wherever mental power is imprisoned, and remains intact and entire for want of an outlet in conversation, in politics, in literature, in the imaginings of the scholar, in the efforts of the statesman, in the conceptions of the inventor, or the soldier's toils of war; the fire within is apt to flash out in gleams of marvelously vivid light, like the sparks hidden in an unpolished diamond. Let the occasion come, and the spirit within kindles and glows, finds wings to traverse space, and the god-like power of beholding all things. The coal of yesterday under the play of some mysterious influence becomes a radiant diamond. Better educated people, many-sided and highly polished, continually giving out all that is in them, can never exhibit this supreme power, save by one of the miracles which God sometimes vouchsafes to work. For this reason the soothsayer is almost always a beggar, whose mind is virgin soil, a creature coarse to all appearance, a pebble borne along the torrent of misery and left in the ruts of life, where it spends nothing of itself save in mere physical suffering.

The prophet, the seer, in short, is some Martin le Laboureur making a Louis XVIII. tremble by telling him a secret known only to the king himself; or it is a Mlle. Lenormand, or a domestic servant like Mme. Fontaine, or again, perhaps it is some half-idiotic negress, some herdsman living among his cattle, who receives the gift of vision; some Hindoo fakir, seated by a pagoda, mortifying the flesh till the spirit gains the mysterious power of the somnambulist.

Asia, indeed, through all time, has been the home of the heroes of occult science. Persons of this kind, recovering their normal state, are usually just as they were before. They fulfil, in some sort, the chemical and physical functions of bodies which conduct electricity; at times inert metal, at other times a channel filled with a mysterious current. In their normal condition they are given to practices which bring them before the magistrate, yea, verily, like the notorious Balthazar, even unto the criminal court, and so to the hulks. You could hardly find a better proof of the immense influence of fortune-telling upon the working classes than the fact that poor Pons' life and death hung upon the prediction that Mme. Fontaine was to make from the cards.

Although a certain amount of repetition is inevitable in a canvas so considerable and so full of detail as a complete picture of French society in the nineteenth century, it is needless to repeat the description of Mme. Fontaine's den, already given in Les Comediens sans le savoir; suffice it to say that Mme. Cibot used to go to Mme. Fontaine's house in the Rue Vieille-du-Temple as regularly as frequenters of the Cafe Anglais drop in at that restaurant for lunch. Mme. Cibot, being a very old customer, often introduced young persons and old gossips consumed with curiosity to the wise woman.

The old servant who acted as provost marshal flung open the door of the sanctuary with no further ceremony than the remark, "It's Mme. Cibot.—Come in, there's nobody here."

"Well, child, what can bring you here so early of a morning?" asked the sorceress, as Mme. Fontaine might well be called, for she was seventy-eight years old, and looked like one of the Parcae.

"Something has given me a turn," said La Cibot; "I want the grand jeu; it is a question of my fortune." Therewith she explained her position, and wished to know if her sordid hopes were likely to be realized.

"Do you know what the grand jeu means?" asked Mme. Fontaine, with much solemnity.

"No, I haven't never seen the trick, I am not rich enough.—A hundred francs! It's not as if it cost so much! Where was the money to come from? But now I can't help myself, I must have it."

"I don't do it often, child," returned Mme. Fontaine; "I only do it for rich people on great occasions, and they pay me twenty-five louis for doing it; it tires me, you see, it wears me out. The 'Spirit' rives my inside, here. It is like going to the 'Sabbath,' as they used to say."

"But when I tell you that it means my whole future, my dear good Ma'am Fontaine—"

"Well, as it is you that have come to consult me so often, I will submit myself to the Spirit!" replied Mme. Fontaine, with a look of genuine terror on her face.

She rose from her filthy old chair by the fireside, and went to a table covered with a green cloth so worn that you could count the threads. A huge toad sat dozing there beside a cage inhabited by a black disheveled-looking fowl.

"Astaroth! here, my son!" she said, and the creature looked up intelligently at her as she rapped him on the back with a long knitting-needle.—"And you, Mademoiselle Cleopatre!—attention!" she continued, tapping the ancient fowl on the beak.

Then Mme. Fontaine began to think; for several seconds she did not move; she looked like a corpse, her eyes rolled in their sockets and grew white; then she rose stiff and erect, and a cavernous voice cried:

"Here I am!"

Automatically she scattered millet for Cleopatre, took up the pack of cards, shuffled them convulsively, and held them out to Mme. Cibot to cut, sighing heavily all the time. At the sight of that image of Death in the filthy turban and uncanny-looking bed-jacket, watching the black fowl as it pecked at the millet-grains, calling to the toad Astaroth to walk over the cards that lay out on the table, a cold thrill ran through Mme. Cibot; she shuddered. Nothing but strong belief can give strong emotions. An assured income, to be or not to be, that was the question.

The sorceress opened a magical work and muttered some unintelligible words in a sepulchral voice, looked at the remaining millet-seeds, and watched the way in which the toad retired. Then after seven or eight minutes, she turned her white eyes on the cards and expounded them.

"You will succeed, although nothing in the affair will fall out as you expect. You will have many steps to take, but you will reap the fruits of your labors. You will behave very badly; it will be with you as it is with all those who sit by a sick-bed and covet part of the inheritance. Great people will help you in this work of wrongdoing. Afterwards in the death agony you will repent. Two escaped convicts, a short man with red hair and an old man with a bald head, will murder you for the sake of the money you will be supposed to have in the village whither you will retire with your second husband. Now, my daughter, it is still open to you to choose your course."

The excitement which seemed to glow within, lighting up the bony hollows about the eyes, was suddenly extinguished. As soon as the horoscope was pronounced, Mme. Fontaine's face wore a dazed expression; she looked exactly like a sleep-walker aroused from sleep, gazed about her with an astonished air, recognized Mme. Cibot, and seemed surprised by her terrified face.

"Well, child," she said, in a totally different voice, "are you satisfied?"

Mme. Cibot stared stupidly at the sorceress, and could not answer.

"Ah! you would have the grand jeu; I have treated you as an old acquaintance. I only want a hundred francs—"

"Cibot,—going to die?" gasped the portress.

"So I have been telling you very dreadful things, have I?" asked Mme. Fontaine, with an extremely ingenuous air.

"Why, yes!" said La Cibot, taking a hundred francs from her pocket and laying them down on the edge of the table. "Going to be murdered, think of it—"

"Ah! there it is! You would have the grand jeu; but don't take on so, all the folk that are murdered on the cards don't die."

"But is it possible, Ma'am Fontaine?"

"Oh, I know nothing about it, my pretty dear! You would rap at the door of the future; I pull the cord, and it came."

"It, what?" asked Mme. Cibot.

"Well, then, the Spirit!" cried the sorceress impatiently.

"Good-bye, Ma'am Fontaine," exclaimed the portress. "I did not know what the grand jeu was like. You have given me a good fright, that you have."

"The mistress will not put herself in that state twice in a month," said the servant, as she went with La Cibot to the landing. "She would do herself to death if she did, it tires her so. She will eat cutlets now and sleep for three hours afterwards."

Out in the street La Cibot took counsel of herself as she went along, and, after the manner of all who ask for advice of any sort or description, she took the favorable part of the prediction and rejected the rest. The next day found her confirmed in her resolutions—she would set all in train to become rich by securing a part of Pons' collection. Nor for some time had she any other thought than the combination of various plans to this end. The faculty of self-concentration seen in rough, uneducated persons, explained on a previous page, the reserve power accumulated in those whose mental energies are unworn by the daily wear and tear of social life, and brought into action so soon as that terrible weapon the "fixed idea" is brought into play,—all this was pre-eminently manifested in La Cibot. Even as the "fixed idea" works miracles of evasion, and brings forth prodigies of sentiment, so greed transformed the portress till she became as formidable as a Nucingen at bay, as subtle beneath her seeming stupidity as the irresistible La Palferine.

About seven o'clock one morning, a few days afterwards, she saw Remonencq taking down his shutters. She went across to him.

"How could one find out how much the things yonder in my gentlemen's rooms are worth?" she asked in a wheedling tone.

"Oh! that is quite easy," replied the owner of the old curiosity shop. "If you will play fair and above board with me, I will tell you of somebody, a very honest man, who will know the value of the pictures to a farthing—"

"Who?"

"M. Magus, a Jew. He only does business to amuse himself now."