The Fortune Teller


Sir Henry Marquis continued to read; he made no comment; his voice clear and even.

It was a big sunny room. The long windows looked out on a formal garden, great beech trees and the bow of the river. Within it was a sort of library. There were bookcases built into the wall, to the height of a man's head, and at intervals between them, rising from the floor to the cornice of the shelves, were rows of mahogany drawers with glass knobs. There was also a flat writing table.

It was the room of a traveler, a man of letters, a dreamer. On the table were an inkpot of carved jade, a paperknife of ivory with gold butterflies set in; three bronze storks, with their backs together, held an exquisite Japanese crystal.

The room was in disorder - the drawers pulled out and the contents ransacked.

My father stood leaning against the casement of the window, looking out. The lawyer, Mr. Lewis, sat in a chair beside the table, his eyes on the violated room.

"Pendleton," he said, "I don't like this English man Gosford."

The words seemed to arouse my father out of the depths of some reflection, and he turned to the lawyer, Mr. Lewis.

"Gosford!" he echoed.

"He is behind this business, Pendleton," the lawyer, Mr. Lewis, went on. "Mark my word! He comes here when Marshall is dying; he forces his way to the man's bed; he puts the servants out; he locks the door. Now, what business had this Englishman with Marshall on his deathbed? What business of a secrecy so close that Marshall's son is barred out by a locked door?"

He paused and twisted the seal ring on his finger.

"When you and I came to visit the sick man, Gosford was always here, as though he kept a watch upon us, and when we left, he went always to this room to write his letters, as he said.

"And more than this, Pendleton; Marshall is hardly in his grave before Gosford writes me to inquire by what legal process the dead man's papers may be examined for a will. And it is Gosford who sends a negro riding, as if the devil were on the crupper, to summon me in the name of the Commonwealth of Virginia, - to appear and examine into the circumstances of this burglary.

"I mistrust the man. He used to hang about Marshall in his life, upon some enterprise of secrecy; and now he takes possession and leadership in his affairs, and sets the man's son aside. In what right, Pendleton, does this adventurous Englishman feel himself secure?"

My father did not reply to Lewis's discourse. His comment was in another quarter.

"Here is young Marshall and Gaeki," he said.

The lawyer rose and came over to the window.

Two persons were advancing from the direction of the stables - a tall, delicate boy, and a strange old man. The old man walked with a quick, jerky, stride. It was the old country doctor Gaeki. And, unlike any other man of his profession, he would work as long and as carefully on the body of a horse as he would on the body of a man, snapping out his quaint oaths, and in a stress of effort, as though he struggled with some invisible creature for its' prey. The negroes used to say that the devil was afraid of Gaeki, and he might have been, if to disable a man or his horse were the devil's will. But I think, rather, the negroes imagined the devil to fear what they feared themselves.

"Now, what could bring Gaeki here?" said Lewes.

"It was the horse that Gosford overheated in his race to you," replied my father. "I saw him stop in the road where the negro boy was leading the horse about, and then call young Marshall."

"It was no fault of young Marshall, Pendleton," said the lawyer. "But, also, he is no match for Gosford. He is a dilettante. He paints little pictures after the fashion he learned in Paris, and he has no force or vigor in him. His father was a dreamer, a wanderer, one who loved the world and its frivolities, and the son takes that temperament, softened by his mother. He ought to have a guardian."

"He has one," replied my father.

"A guardian!" repeated Lewis. "What court has appointed a guardian for young Marshall?"

"A court," replied my father, "that does not sit under the authority of Virginia. The helpless, Lewis, in their youth and inexperience, are not wholly given over to the spoiler."

The boy they talked about was very young - under twenty, one would say. He was blue-eyed and fair-haired, with thin, delicate features, which showed good blood long inbred to the loss of vigor. He had the fine, open, generous face of one who takes the world as in a fairy story. But now there was care and anxiety in it, and a furtive shadow, as though the lad's dream of life had got some rude awakening.

At this moment the door behind my father and Lewis was thrown violently open, and a man entered. He was a person with the manner of a barrister, precise and dapper; he had a long, pink face, pale eyes, and a close-cropped beard that brought out the hard lines of his mouth. He bustled to the table, put down a sort of portfolio that held an inkpot, a writing-pad and pens, and drew up a chair like one about to take the minutes of a meeting. And all the while he apologized for his delay. He had important letters to get off in the post, and to make sure, had carried them to the tavern himself.

"And now, sirs, let us get about this business," he finished, like one who calls his assistants to a labor:

My father turned about and looked at the man.

"Is your name Gosford?" he said in his cold, level voice.

"It is, sir," replied the Englishman, " - Anthony Gosford."

"Well, Mr. Anthony Gosford," replied my father, "kindly close the door that you have opened."

Lewis plucked out his snuffbox and trumpeted in his many-colored handkerchief to hide his laughter.

The Englishman, thrown off his patronizing manner, hesitated, closed the door as he was bidden - and could not regain his fine air.

"Now, Mr. Gosford," my father went on, "why was this room violated as we see it?"

"It was searched for Peyton Marshall's will, sir," replied the man.

"How did you know that Marshall had a will?" said my father.

"I saw him write it," returned the Englishman, "here in this very room, on the eighteenth day of October, 1854."

"That was two years ago," said my father. "Was the will here at Marshall's death?"

"It was. He told me on his deathbed."

"And it is gone now?"

"It is," replied the Englishman.

"And now, Mr. Gosford," said my father, "how do you know this will is gone unless you also know precisely where it was?"

"I do know precisely where it was, sir," returned the man. "It was in the row of drawers on the right of the window where you stand - the second drawer from the top. Mr. Marshall put it there when he wrote it, and he told me on his deathbed that it remained there. You can see, sir, that the drawer has been rifled."

My father looked casually at the row of mahogany drawers rising along the end of the bookcase. The second one and the one above were open; the others below were closed.

"Mr. Gosford," he said, "you would have some interest in this will, to know about it so precisely."

"And so I have," replied the man, "it left me a sum of money."

"A large sum?"

"A very large sum, sir."

"Mr. Anthony Gosford," said my father, "for what purpose did Peyton Marshall bequeath you a large sum of money? You are no kin; nor was he in your debt."

The Englishman sat down and put his fingers together with a judicial air.

"Sir," he began, "I am not advised that the purpose of a bequest is relevant, when the bequest is direct and unencumbered by the testator with any indicatory words of trust or uses. This will bequeathes me a sum of money. I am not required by any provision of the law to show the reasons moving the testator. Doubtless, Mr. Peyton Marshall had reasons which he deemed excellent for this course, but they are, sir, entombed in the grave with him."

My father looked steadily at the man, but he did not seem to consider his explanation, nor to go any further on that line.

"Is there another who would know about this will?" he said.

"This effeminate son would know," replied Gosford, a sneer in the epithet, "but no other. Marshall wrote the testament in his own hand, without witnesses, as he had the legal right to do under the laws of Virginia. The lawyer," he added, "Mr. Lewis, will confirm me in the legality of that."

"It is the law," said Lewis. "One may draw up a holograph will if he likes, in his own hand, and it is valid without a witness in this State, although the law does not so run in every commonwealth."

"And now, sir," continued the Englishman, turning to my father, "we will inquire into the theft of this testament."

But my father did not appear to notice Mr. Gosford. He seemed perplexed and in some concern.

"Lewis," he said, "what is your definition of a crime?"

"It is a violation of the law," replied the lawyer.

"I do not accept your definition," said my father. "It is, rather, I think, a violation of justice - a violation of something behind the law that makes an act a crime. I think," he went on, "that God must take a broader view than Mr. Blackstone and Lord Coke. I have seen a murder in the law that was, in fact, only a kind of awful accident, and I have seen your catalogue of crimes gone about by feeble men with no intent except an adjustment of their rights. Their crimes, Lewis, were merely errors of their impractical judgment."

Then he seemed to remember that the Englishman was present.

"And now, Mr. Gosford," he said, "will you kindly ask young Marshall to come in here?"

The man would have refused, with some rejoinder, but my father was looking at him, and he could not find the courage to resist my father's will. He got up and went out, and presently returned followed by the lad and Gaeki. The old country doctor sat down by the door, his leather case of bottles by the chair, his cloak still fastened under his chin. Gosford went back to the table and sat down with his writing materials to keep notes. The boy stood.

My father looked a long time at the lad. His face was grave, but when he spoke, his voice was gentle.

"My boy," he said, "I have had a good deal of experience in the examination of the devil's work." He paused and indicated the violated room. "It is often excellently done. His disciples are extremely clever. One's ingenuity is often taxed to trace out the evil design in it, and to stamp it as a false piece set into the natural sequence of events."

He paused again, and his big shoulders blotted out the window.

"Every natural event," he continued, "is intimately connected with innumerable events that precede and follow. It has so many serrated points of contact with other events that the human mind is not able to fit a false event so that no trace of the joinder will appear. The most skilled workmen in the devil's shop are only able to give their false piece a blurred joinder."

He stopped and turned to the row of mahogany drawers beside him.

"Now, my boy," he said, "can you tell me why the one who ransacked this room, in opening and tumbling the contents of all the drawers, about, did not open the two at the bottom of the row where' I stand?"

"Because there was nothing in them of value, sir," replied the lad.

"What is in them?" said my father.

"Only old letters, sir, written to my father, when I was in Paris - nothing else."

"And who would know that?" said my father.

The boy went suddenly white.

"Precisely!" said my father. "You alone knew it, and when you undertook to give this library the appearance of a pillaged room, you unconsciously endowed your imaginary robber with the thing you knew yourself. Why search for loot in drawers that contained only old letters? So your imaginary robber reasoned, knowing what you knew. But a real robber, having no such knowledge, would have ransacked them lest he miss the things of value that he searched for."

He paused, his eyes on the lad, his voice deep and gentle.

"Where is the will?" he said.

The white in the boy's face changed to scarlet. He looked a moment about him in a sort of terror; then he lifted his head and put back his shoulders. He crossed the room to a bookcase, took down a volume, opened it and brought out a sheet of folded foolscap. He stood up and faced my father and the men about the room.

"This man," he said, indicating Gosford, "has no right to take all my father had. He persuaded my father and was trusted by him. But I did not trust him. My father saw this plan in a light that I did not see it, but I did not oppose him. If he wished to use his fortune to help our country in the thing which he thought he foresaw, I was willing for him to do it.

"But," he cried, "somebody deceived me, and I will not believe that it was my father. He told me all about this thing. I had not the health to fight for our country, when the time came, he said, and as he had no other son, our fortune must go to that purpose in our stead. But my father was just. He said that a portion would be set aside for me, and the remainder turned over to Mr. Gosford. But this will gives all to Mr. Gosford and leaves me nothing!"

Then he came forward and put the paper in my father's hand. There was silence except for the sharp voice of Mr. Gosford.

"I think there will be a criminal proceeding here!"

My father handed the paper to Lewis, who unfolded it and read it aloud. It directed the estate of Peyton Marshall to be sold, the sum of fifty thousand dollars paid to Anthony Gosford and the remainder to the son.

"But there will be no remainder," cried young Marshall. "My father's estate is worth precisely that sum. He valued it very carefully, item by item, and that is exactly the amount it came to."

"Nevertheless," said Lewis, "the will reads that way. It is in legal form, written in Marshall's hand, and signed with his signature, and sealed. Will you examine it, gentlemen? There can be no question of the writing or the signature."

My father took the paper and read it slowly, and old Gaeki nosed it over my father's arm, his eyes searching the structure of each word, while Mr. Gosford sat back comfortably in his chair like one elevated to a victory.

"It is in Marshall's hand and signature," said my father, and old Gaeki, nodded, wrinkling his face under his shaggy eyebrows. He went away still wagging his grizzled head, wrote a memorandum on an envelope from his pocket, and sat down in, his chair.

My father turned now to young Marshall.

"My boy," he said, "why do you say that some one has deceived you?"

"Because, sir," replied the lad, "my father was to leave me twenty thousand dollars. That was his plan. Thirty thousand dollars should be set aside for Mr. Gosford, and the remainder turned over to me."

"That would be thirty thousand dollars to Mr. Gosford, instead of fifty," said my father.

"Yes, sir," replied the boy; "that is the way my father said he would write his will. But it was not written that way. It is fifty thousand dollars to Mr. Gosford, and the remainder to me. If it were thirty thousand dollars to Mr. Gosford, as my father, said his will would be, that would have left me twenty thousand dollars from the estate; but giving Mr. Gosford fifty thousand dollars leaves me nothing."

"And so you adventured on a little larceny," sneered the Englishman.

The boy stood very straight and white.

"I do not understand this thing," he said, "but I do not believe that my father would deceive me. He never did deceive me in his life. I may have been, a disappointment to him, but my father was a gentle man." His voice went up strong and clear. "And I refuse to believe that he would tell me one thing and do another!"

One could not fail to be impressed, or to believe that the boy spoke the truth.

"We are sorry," said Lewis, "but the will is valid and we cannot go behind it."

My father walked about the room, his face in reflection. Gosford sat at his ease, transcribing a note on his portfolio. Old Gaeki had gone back to his chair and to his little case of bottles; he got them up on his knees, as though he would be diverted by fingering the tools of his profession. Lewis was in plain distress, for he held the law and its disposition to be inviolable; the boy stood with a find defiance, ennobled by the trust in his father's honor. One could not take his stratagem for a criminal act; he was only a child, for all his twenty years of life. And yet Lewis saw the elements of crime, and he knew that Gosford was writing down the evidence.

It was my father who broke the silence.

"Gosford," he said, "what scheme were you and Marshall about?"

"You may wonder, sir," replied the Englishman, continuing to write at his notes; "I shall not tell you."

"But I will tell you," said the boy. "My father thought that the states in this republic could not hold together very much longer. He believed that the country would divide, and the South set up a separate government. He hoped this might come about without a war. He was in horror of a war. He had traveled; he had seen nations and read their history, and he knew what civil wars were. I have heard him say that men did not realize what they were talking when they urged war."

He paused and looked at Gosford.

"My father was convinced that the South would finally set up an independent government, but he hoped a war might not follow. He believed that if this new government were immediately recognized by Great Britain, the North would accept the inevitable and there would be no bloodshed. My father went to England with this scheme. He met Mr. Gosford somewhere - on the ship, I think. And Mr. Gosford succeeded in convincing my father that if he had a sum of money he could win over certain powerful persons in the English Government, and so pave the way to an immediate recognition of the Southern Republic by Great Britain. He followed my father home and hung about him, and so finally got his will. My father was careful; he wrote nothing; Mr. Gosford wrote nothing; there is no evidence of this plan; but my father told me, and it is true."

My father stopped by the table and lifted his great shoulders.

"And so," he said, "Peyton Marshall imagined a plan like that, and left its execution to a Mr. Gosford!"

The Englishman put down his pen and addressed my father.

"I would advise you, sir, to require a little proof for your conclusions. This is a very pretty story, but it is prefaced by an admission of no evidence, and it comes as a special pleading for a criminal act. Now, sir, if I chose, if the bequest required it, I could give a further explanation, with more substance; of moneys borrowed by the decedent in his travels and to be returned to me. But the will, sir, stands for itself, as Mr. Lewis will assure you."

Young Marshall looked anxiously at the lawyer.

"Is that the law, sir?"

"It is the law of Virginia," said Lewis, "that a will by a competent testator, drawn in form, requires no collateral explanation to support it."

My father seemed brought up in a cul-de-sac. His face was tense and disturbed. He stood by the table; and now, as by accident, he put out his hand and took up the Japanese crystal supported by the necks of the three bronze storks. He appeared unconscious of the act, for he was in deep reflection. Then, as though the weight in his hand drew his attention, he glanced at the thing. Something about it struck him, for his manner changed. He spread the will out on the table and began to move the crystal over it, his face close to the glass. Presently his hand stopped, and he stood stooped over, staring into the Oriental crystal, like those practicers of black art who predict events from what they pretend to see in these spheres of glass.

Mr. Gosford, sitting at his ease, in victory, regarded my father with a supercilious, ironical smile.

"Sir," he said, "are you, by chance, a fortuneteller?"

"A misfortune-teller," replied my father, his face still held above the crystal. "I see here a misfortune to Mr. Anthony Gosford. I predict, from what I see, that he will release this bequest of moneys to Peyton Marshall's son."

"Your prediction, sir," said Gosford, in a harder note, "is not likely to come true."

"Why, yes," replied my father, "it is certain to come true. I see it very clearly. Mr. Gosford will write out a release, under his hand and seal, and go quietly out of Virginia, and Peyton Marshall's son will take his entire estate."

"Sir," said the Englishman, now provoked into a temper, "do you enjoy this foolery?"

"You are not interested in crystal-gazing, Mr. Gosford," replied my father in a tranquil voice. "Well, I find it most diverting. Permit me to piece out your fortune, or rather your misfortune, Mr. Gosford! By chance you fell in with this dreamer Marshall, wormed into his confidence, pretended a relation to great men in England; followed and persuaded him until, in his ill-health, you got this will. You saw it written two years ago. When Marshall fell ill, you hurried here, learned from the dying man that the will remained and where it was. You made sure by pretending to write letters in this room, bringing your portfolio with ink and pen and a pad of paper. Then, at Marshall's death, you inquired of Lewis for legal measures to discover the dead man's will. And when you find the room ransacked, you run after the law."

My father paused.

"That is your past, Mr. Gosford. Now let me tell your future. I see you in joy at the recovered will. I see you pleased at your foresight in getting a direct bequest, and at the care you urged on Marshall to leave no evidence of his plan, lest the authorities discover it. For I see, Mr. Gosford, that it was your intention all along to keep this sum of money for your own use and pleasure. But alas, Mr. Gosford, it was not to be! I see you writing this release; and Mr. Gosford" - my father's voice went up full and strong, - "I see you writing it in terror-sweat on your face! "

"The Devil take your nonsense!" cried the Englishman.

My father stood up with a twisted, ironical smile.

"If you doubt my skill, Mr. Gosford, as a fortune, or rather a misfortune-teller I will ask Mr. Lewis and Herman Gaeki to tell me what they see."

The two men crossed the room and stooped over the paper, while my father held the crystal. The manner and the bearing of the men changed. They grew on the instant tense and fired with interest.

"I see it!" said the old doctor, with a queer foreign expletive.

"And I," cried Lewis, "see something more than Peadleton's vision. I see the penitentiary in the distance."

The Englishman sprang up with an oath and leaned across the table. Then he saw the thing.

"My father's hand held the crystal above the (figures of the bequest written in the body of the will. The focused lens of glass magnified to a great diameter, and under the vast enlargement a thing that would escape the eye stood out. The top curl of a figure 3 had been erased, and the bar of a 5 added. One could see the broken fibers of the paper on the outline of the curl, and the bar of the five lay across the top of the three and the top of the o behind it like a black lath tacked across two uprights.

The figure 3 had been changed to 5 so cunningly is to deceive the eye, but not to deceive the vast magnification of the crystal. The thing stood out big and crude like a carpenter's patch.

Gosford's face became expressionless like wood, his body rigid; then he stood up and faced the three men across the table.

"Quite so!" he said in his vacuous English voice. "Marshall wrote a 3 by inadvertence and changed it. He borrowed my penknife to erase the figure."

My father and Lewis gaped like men who see a penned-in beast slip out through an unimagined passage. There was silence. Then suddenly, in the strained stillness of the room, old Doctor Gaeki laughed.

Gosford lifted his long pink face, with its cropped beard bringing out the ugly mouth.

"Why do you laugh, my good man?" he said.

"I laugh," replied Gaeki, "because a figure 5 can have so many colors."

And now my father and Lewis were no less astonished than Mr. Gosford.

"Colors!" they said, for the changed figure in the will was black.

"Why, yes," replied the old man, "it is very pretty."

He reached across the table and drew over Mr. Gosford's memorandum beside the will.

"You are progressive, sir," he went on; "you write in iron-nutgall ink, just made, commercially, in this year of fifty-six by Mr. Stephens. But we write here as Marshall wrote in 'fifty-four, with logwood."

He turned and fumbled in his little case of bottles.

"I carry a bit of acid for my people's indigestions. It has other uses." He whipped out the stopper of his vial and dabbed Gosford's notes and Marshall's signature.

"See!" he cried. "Your writing is blue, Mr. Gosford, and Marshall's red!"

With an oath the trapped man struck at Gaeki's hand. The vial fell and cracked on the table. The hydrochloric acid spread out over Marshall's will. And under the chemical reagent the figure in the bequest of fifty thousand dollars changed beautifully; the bar of the 5 turned blue, and the remainder of it a deep purple-red like the body of the will.

"Gaeki," cried my father, "you have trapped a rogue!"

"And I have lost a measure of good acid," replied the old man. And he began to gather up the bits of his broken bottle from the table.

The Fortune Teller was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Wed, Nov 08, 2023


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