The prologue to this somewhat dramatic history was of the simplest. The affair came to a climax, if one may speak metaphorically, in fire and sword and high passion, but it began like the month of March. Mr Bostock (a younger brother of the senior partner in the famous firm of Bostocks, drapers, at Hanbridge) was lounging about the tennis-court attached to his house at Hillport. Hillport has long been known as the fashionable suburb of Bursley, and indeed as the most aristocratic quarter strictly within the Five Towns; there certainly are richer neighbourhoods not far off, but such neighbourhoods cannot boast that they form part of the Five Towns--no more than Hatfield can boast that it is part of London. A man who lives in a detached house at Hillport, with a tennis-court, may be said to have succeeded in life. And Mr Bostock had succeeded. A consulting engineer of marked talent, he had always worked extremely hard and extremely long, and thus he had arrived at luxuries. The chief of his luxuries was his daughter Florence, aged twenty-three, height five feet exactly, as pretty and as neat as a new doll, of expensive and obstinate habits. It was Florence who was the cause of the episode, and I mention her father only to show where Florence stood in the world. She ruled her father during perhaps eleven months of the year. In the twelfth month (which was usually January--after the Christmas bills) there would be an insurrection, conducted by the father with much spirit for a time, but ultimately yielding to the forces of the government. Florence had many admirers; a pretty woman, who habitually rules a rich father, is bound to have many admirers. But she had two in particular; her cousin, Ralph Martin, who had been apprenticed to her father, and Adam Tellwright, a tile manufacturer at Turnhill.
These four--the father and daughter and the rivals--had been playing tennis that Saturday afternoon. Mr Bostock, though touching on fifty, retained a youthful athleticism; he looked and talked younger than his years, and he loved the society of young people. If he wandered solitary and moody about the tennis-court now, it was because he had a great deal on his mind besides business. He had his daughter's future on his mind.
A servant with apron-strings waving like flags in the breeze came from the house with a large loaded tea-tray, and deposited it on a wicker table on the small lawn at the end of the ash court. The rivals were reclining in deck chairs close to the table; the Object of Desire, all in starched white, stood over the table and with quick delicious movements dropped sugar and poured milk into tinkling porcelain.
"Now, father," she called briefly, without looking up, as she seized the teapot.
He approached, gazing thoughtfully at the group. Yes, he was worried. And everyone was secretly worried. The situation was exceedingly delicate, fragile, breakable. Mr Bostock looked uneasily first at Adam Tellwright, tall, spick and span, self-confident, clever, shining, with his indubitable virtues mainly on the outside. If ever any man of thirty-two in all this world was eligible, Adam Tellwright was. Decidedly he had a reputation for preternaturally keen smartness in trade, but in trade that cannot be called a defect; on the contrary, if a man has virtues, you cannot precisely quarrel with him because they happen to be on the outside; the principal thing is to have virtues. And then Mr Bostock looked uneasily at Ralph Martin, heavy, short, dark, lowering, untidy, often incomprehensible, and more often rude; with virtues concealed as if they were secret shames. Ralph was capricious. At moments he showed extraordinary talent as an engineer; at others he behaved like a nincompoop. He would be rich one day; but he had a formidable temper. The principal thing in favour of Ralph Martin was that he and Florence had always been "something to each other." Indeed of late years it had been begun to be understood that the match was "as good as arranged." It was taken for granted. Then Adam Tellwright had dropped like a bomb into the Bostock circle. He had fallen heavily and disastrously in love with the slight Florence (whom he could have crushed and eaten). At the start his case was regarded as hopeless, and Ralph Martin had scorned him. But Adam Tellwright soon caused gossip to sing a different tune, and Ralph Martin soon ceased to scorn him. Adam undoubtedly made a profound impression on Florence Bostock. He began by dazzling her, and then, as her eyes grew accustomed to the glare, he gradually showed her his good qualities. Everything that skill and tact could do Tellwright did. The same could not be said of Ralph Martin. Most people had a vague feeling that Ralph had not been treated fairly. Mr Bostock had this feeling. Yet why? Nothing had been settled. Florence's heart was evidently still open to competition, and Adam Tellwright had a perfect right to compete. Still, most people sympathized with Ralph. But Florence did not. Young girls are like that.
Now the rivals stood about equal. No one knew how the battle would go. Adam did not know. Ralph did not know. Florence assuredly did not know. Mr Bostock was quite certain, of a night, that Adam would win, but the next morning he was quite certain that his nephew would win.
No wonder that the tea-party, every member of it tremendously preoccupied by the great battle, was not distinguished by light and natural gaiety. Great battles cannot be talked about till they are over and the last shot fired. And it is not to be expected that people should be bright when each knows the others to be deeply preoccupied by a matter which must not even be mentioned. The tea-party was self-conscious, highly. Therefore, it ate too many cakes and chocolate, and forgot to count its cups of tea. The conversation nearly died of inanition several times, and at last it actually did die, and the quartette gazed in painful silence at its corpse. Anyone who has assisted at this kind of a tea-party will appreciate the situation. Why, Adam Tellwright himself was out of countenance. To his honour, it was he who first revived the corpse. A copy of the previous evening's Signal was lying on an empty deck-chair. It had been out all night, and was dampish. Tellwright picked it up, having finished his tea, and threw a careless eye over it. He was determined to talk about something.
"By Jove!" he said. "That Balsamo johnny is coming to Hanbridge!"
"Yes, didn't you know?" said Florence, agreeably bent on resuscitating the corpse.
"What! The palmistry man?" asked Mr Bostock, with a laugh.
"Yes." And Adam Tellwright read: "'Balsamo, the famous palmist and reader of the future, begs to announce that he is making a tour through the principal towns, and will visit Hanbridge on the 22nd inst., remaining three days. Balsamo has thousands of testimonials to the accuracy of his predictions, and he absolutely guarantees not only to read the past correctly, but to foretell the future. Address: 22 Machin Street, Hanbridge. 10 to 10. Appointment advisable in order to avoid delay.' There! He'll find himself in prison one day, that gentleman will!"
"It's astounding what fools people are!" observed Mr Bostock.
"Yes, isn't it!" said Adam Tellwright.
"If he'd been a gipsy," said Ralph Martin, savagely, "the police would have had him long ago." And he spoke with such grimness that he might have been talking of Adam Tellwright.
"They say his uncle and his grandfather before him were both thought-readers, or whatever you call it," said Florence.
"Do they?" exclaimed Mr Bostock, in a different tone.
"Oh!" exclaimed Adam, also in a different tone.
"I wonder whether that's true!" said Ralph Martin.
The rumour that Balsamo's uncle and grandfather had been readers of the past and of the future produced of course quite an impression on the party. But each recognized how foolish it was to allow oneself to be so impressed in such an illogical manner. And therefore all the men burst into violent depreciation of Balsamo and of the gulls who consulted him. And by the time they had done with Balsamo there was very little left of him. Anyhow, Adam Tellwright's discovery in the Signal had saved the tea-party from utter fiasco.
No. 22 Machin Street, Hanbridge, was next door to Bostock's vast emporium, and exactly opposite the more exclusive, but still mighty, establishment of Ephraim Brunt, the greatest draper in the Five Towns. It was, therefore, in the very heart and centre of retail commerce. No woman who respected herself could buy even a sheet of pins without going past No. 22 Machin Street. The ground-floor was a confectioner's shop, with a back room where tea and Berlin pancakes were served to the elite who had caught from London the fashion of drinking tea in public places. By the side of the confectioner's was an open door and a staircase, which led to the first floor and the other floors. A card hung by a cord to a nail indicated that Balsamo had pitched his moving tent for a few days on the first floor, in a suite of offices lately occupied by a solicitor. Considering that the people who visit a palmist are just as anxious to publish their doings as the people who visit a pawnbroker--and no more--it might be thought that Balsamo had ill-chosen his site. But this was not so. Balsamo, a deep student of certain sorts of human nature, was perfectly aware that, just as necessity will force a person to visit a pawnbroker, so will inherited superstition force a person to visit a palmist, no matter what the inconveniences. If he had erected a wigwam in the middle of Crown Square and people had had to decide between not seeing him at all and running the gauntlet of a crowd's jeering curiosity, he would still have had many clients.
Of course when you are in love you are in love. Anything may happen to you then. Most things do happen. For example, Adam Tellwright found himself ascending the stairs of No. 22 Machin Street at an early hour one morning. He was, I need not say, mounting to the third floor to give an order to the potter's modeller, who had a studio up there. Still he stopped at the first floor, knocked at a door labelled "Balsamo," hesitated, and went in. I need not say that this was only fun on his part. I need not say that he had no belief whatever in palmistry, and was not in the least superstitious. A young man was seated at a desk, a stylish young man. Adam Tellwright smiled, as one who expected the stylish young man to join in the joke. But the young man did not smile. So Adam Tellwright suddenly ceased to smile.
"Are you Mr Balsamo?" Adam inquired.
"No. I'm his secretary."
His secretary! Strange how the fact that Balsamo was guarded by a secretary, and so stylish a secretary, affected the sagacious and hard-headed Adam!
"You wish to see him?" the secretary demanded coldly.
"I suppose I may as well," said Adam, sheepishly.
"He is disengaged, I think. But I will make sure. Kindly sit down."
Down sat Adam, playing nervously with his hat, and intensely hoping that no other client would come in and trap him.
"Mr Balsamo will see you," said the secretary, emerging through a double black portiere. "The fee is a guinea."
He resumed his chair and drew towards him a book of receipt forms.
However, Adam paid it. The receipt form said: "Received from Mr ---- the sum of one guinea for professional assistance.--Per Balsamo, J.H.K.," and a long flourish. The words "one guinea" were written. Idle to deny that this receipt form was impressive. As Adam meekly followed "J.H.K." in to the Presence, he felt exactly as if he was being ushered into a dentist's cabinet. He felt as though he had been caught in the wheels of an unstoppable machine and was in vague but serious danger.
The Presence was a bold man, with a flowing light brown moustache, blue eyes, and a vast forehead. He wore a black velvet coat, and sat at a small table on which was a small black velvet cushion. There were two doors to the rooms, each screened by double black portieres, and beyond a second chair and a large transparent ball, such as dentists use, there was no other furniture.
"Better give me your hat," said the secretary, and took it from Adam, who parted from it reluctantly, as if from his last reliable friend. Then the portieres swished together, and Adam was alone with Balsamo.
Balsamo stared at him; did not even ask him to sit down.
"Why do you come to me? You don't believe in me," said Balsamo, curtly. "Why waste your money?"
"How can I tell whether I believe in you or not," protested Adam Tellwright, the shrewd man of business, very lamely. "I've come to see what you can do."
Balsamo snapped his fingers.
"Sit down then," said he, "and put your hands on this cushion. No!--palms up!"
Balsamo gaped at them a long time, rubbing his chin. Then he rose, adjusted the transparent glass ball so that the light came through it on to Adam's hands, sat down again and resumed his stare.
"Do you want to know everything?" he asked.
"Yes." A trace of weakness in this affirmative.
"Well, you mustn't expect to live much after fifty-two. Look at the line of life there." He spoke in such a casual, even antipathetic tone that Adam was startled.
"You've had success. You will have it continuously. But you won't live long."
"What have I to avoid?" Adam demanded.
"Can't avoid your fate. You asked me to tell you everything."
"Tell me about my past," said Adam, feebly, the final remnant of shrewdness in him urging him to get the true measure of Balsamo before matters grew worse.
"Your past?" Balsamo murmured. "Keep your left hand quite still, please. You aren't married. You're in business. You've never thought of marriage--till lately. It's not often I see a hand like yours. Your slate is clean. Till lately you never thought of marriage."
"Who can say when the idea of marriage first came to you? You couldn't say yourself. Perhaps about three months ago. Yes--three months. I see water--you have crossed the sea. Is all this true?"
"Yes," admitted Adam.
"You're in love, of course. Did you know you have a rival?"
"Yes." Once more Adam was startled.
"Is he fair? No, he's not fair. He's dark. Isn't he?"
"Ah! The woman. Uncertain, uncertain. Mind you I never undertake to foretell anything; all I guarantee is that what I do foretell will happen. Now, you will be married in a year or eighteen months." Balsamo stuck his chin out with the gesture of one who imparts grave news; then paused reflectively.
"Ah! There are two women. One fair, one dark. Which one do you prefer?"
"The dark one," Adam replied in spite of himself.
"Perhaps the fair one has not yet come into your life? No. But she will do."
"But which shall I marry?"
"Look at that line. No, here! See how indistinct and confused it is. Your destiny is not yet settled. Frankly, I cannot tell you with certainty. No one can go in advance of destiny. Ah! Young man, I sympathize with you."
"Then, really you can't tell me."
"Listen! I might help you. Yes, I might help you."
"The others will come to me."
"Your rival. And the woman you love."
"What is not marked on your hand may be very clearly marked on theirs. Come to me again."
"How do you know they will come? They both said they should not."
"You said you would not. But you are here. Rely on me. They will come. I might do a great deal for you. Of course it will cost you more. One lives in a world of money, and I sell my powers, like the rest of mankind. I am proud to do so."
"How much will it cost?"
"Five pounds. You are free to take it or leave it, naturally."
Adam Tellwright put his hand in his pocket.
"Have the goodness to pay my secretary," Balsamo stopped him icily.
"I beg pardon," said Adam, out of countenance.
"Of course if they do not come the money will be returned. Now, before you go, you might tell me all you know about him, and about her. All. Omit nothing. It is not essential, but it might help me. There is a chance that it might make things clearer than they otherwise could be. The true palmist never refuses any aid."
And Adam thereupon went into an elaborate account of Florence Bostock and Ralph Martin. He left out nothing, not even that Ralph had a wart on his chin, and had once broken a leg; nor that Florence had once been nearly drowned in a swimming-bath in London.
It was the same afternoon.
Balsamo stared calmly at a young dark-browed man who had entered his sanctuary with much the same air as a village bumpkin assumes when he is about to be shown the three-card trick on a race-course. Balsamo did not even ask him to sit down.
"Why do you come to me? You don't believe in me," said Balsamo, curtly. "Why waste your half-sovereign?"
Ralph Martin, not being talkative, said nothing.
"However!" Balsamo proceeded. "Sit down, please. Let me look at your hands. Ah! yes! Do you want to know anything?"
"Yes, of course."
"Let me advise you, then, to give up all thoughts of that woman."
"You know what woman. She is a very little woman. Once she was nearly drowned--far from here. You've loved her for a long time. You thought it was a certainty. And upon my soul you were justified in thinking so--almost! Look at that line. But it isn't a certainty. Look at that line!"
Balsamo gazed at him coldly, and Ralph Martin knew not what to do or to say. He was astounded; he was frightened; he was desolated. He perceived at once that palmistry was after all a terrible reality.
"Tell me some more," he murmured.
And so Balsamo told him a great deal more, including full details of a woman far finer than Florence Bostock, whom he was destined to meet in the following year. But Ralph Martin would have none of this new woman. Then Balsamo said suddenly:
"She is coming. I see her coming."
"The little woman. She is dressed in white, with a gold-and-white sunshade, and yellow gloves and boots, and she has a gold reticule in her hand. Is that she?"
Ralph Martin admitted that it was she. On the other hand, Balsamo did not admit that he had seen her an hour earlier and had made an appointment with her.
There was a quiet knock on the door. Ralph started.
"You hear," said Balsamo, quietly, "I fear you will never win her."
"You said just now positively that I shouldn't," Ralph exclaimed.
"I did not," said Balsamo. "I would like to help you. I am very sorry for you. It is not often I see a hand like yours. I might be able to help you; the destiny is not yet settled."
"I'll give you anything to help me," said Ralph.
"It will be a couple of guineas," said Balsamo.
"But what guarantee have I?" Ralph asked rudely, when he had paid the money--to Balsamo, not to the secretary. Such changes of humour were characteristic of him.
"None!" said Balsamo, with dignity, putting the sovereigns on the table. "But I am sorry for you. I will tell you what you can do. You can go behind those curtains there"--he pointed to the inner door--"and listen to all that I say."
A proposal open to moral objections! But when you are in the state that Ralph Martin was in, and have experienced what he had just experienced, your out-look upon morals is apt to be disturbed.
"Young lady," Balsamo was saying. "Rest assured that I have not taken five shillings from you for nothing. Your lover has a wart on his chin."
Daintiness itself sat in front of him, with her little porcelain hands lying on the black cushion. And daintiness was astonished into withdrawing those hands.
"Please keep your hands still," said Balsamo, firmly, and proceeded: "But you have another lover, older, who has recently come into your life. Fair, tall. A successful man who will always be successful. Is it not so?"
"Yes," a little voice muttered.
"You can't make up your mind between them? Answer me."
"And you wish to learn the future. I will tell you--you will marry the fair man. That is your destiny. And you will be very happy. You will soon perceive the bad qualities of the one with the wart. He is a wicked man. I need not urge you to avoid him. You will do so."
"A bad man!"
"A bad man. You see there are two sovereigns lying here. That man has actually tried to bribe me to influence you in his favour?"
"Since you mention his Christian name, I will mention his surname. It is written here. Martin."
"He can't have--possibly--"
Balsamo strode with offended pride to the portiere, and pulled it away, revealing Mr Ralph Martin, who for the second time that afternoon knew not what to say or to do.
"I tell you--" Ralph began, as red as fire.
"Silence, sir! Let this teach you not to try to corrupt an honest professional man! Surely I had amply convinced you of my powers! Take your miserable money!" He offered the miserable money to Ralph, who stuck his hands in his pockets, whereupon Balsamo flung the miserable money violently on to the floor.
A deplorable scene followed, in which the presence of Balsamo did not prevent Florence Bostock from conveying clearly to Ralph what she thought of him. They spoke before Balsamo quite freely, as two people will discuss maladies before a doctor. Ralph departed first; then Florence. Then Balsamo gathered up the sovereigns. He had honestly earned Adam's fiver, and since Ralph had refused the two pounds--"I have seen their hands," said Balsamo the next day to Adam Tellwright. "All is clear. In a month you will be engaged to her."
"A month. I regret that I had a painful scene with your rival. But of course professional etiquette prevents me from speaking of that. Let me repeat, in a month you will be engaged to her."
This prophecy came true. Adam Tellwright, however, did not marry Florence Bostock. One evening, in a secluded corner at a dance, Ralph Martin, without warning, threw his arms angrily, brutally, instinctively round Florence's neck and kissed her. It was wrong of him. But he conquered her. Love is like that. It hides for years, and then pops out, and won't be denied. Florence's engagement to Adam was broken. She married Ralph. She knew she was marrying a strange, dark-minded man of uncertain temper, but she married him.
As for the unimpeachable Adam, he was left with nothing but the uneasy fear that he was doomed to die at fifty-two. His wife (for he got one, and a good one) soon cured him of that.