Elsie's "Palmistry Evening"

by Annie Fellows Johnston

As Helen Jaynes stood before the mirror in her room, putting the last touches to her toilet, there was a rap at the door.

"I'm ready, Jane," she called, thinking it was the maid who had come to tell her the carriage was ready. But instead, her fifteen-year-old sister Sara peeped into the room. "Oh, sister Helen!" she exclaimed, in a disappointed tone. "Are you going out? Olive and I wanted to ask you something very particularly."

"Come in, dear," answered Helen, nodding pleasantly to the rosy-cheeked girl who peered over Sara's shoulder. "What do you want? I am at your service."

"What is it you want, Sara?" asked Helen again, as the girls seated themselves by the cozy, tiled fireplace, and looked round admiringly.

Sara hesitated. "I had planned to break it to you gently," she began, "but as you are going out there is no time to lead up to the subject gradually. I hope you'll not be shocked, but there is a clairvoyant at the Metropole this week. Some of the girls have been there, and they say it is simply wonderful how she can tell fortunes. She charges only fifty cents. Olive and I are wild to go, and we thought maybe you might take us Saturday afternoon."

Helen buttoned her gloves as if considering. "Do you think it would make you any happier, little sister, to know what the future holds for you?"

"Oh, yes!" answered Sara, decidedly. "The clairvoyant told Addie Roberts things in her past life that positively nobody but Addie knew had happened. Then she told her that a large fortune is coming to her soon, and she has a long journey ahead of her. She is to fall in love with a young man whom her parents will oppose her marrying, but 'love will find out a way,' and all will end happily."

"Does Addie believe all that the clairvoyant told her?" asked Helen.

"I don't know," answered Sara, but Olive put in eagerly, "I am sure she does, for she talks so much about it, and says if the woman could tell her past so accurately, she cannot help thinking that there must be some truth in her predictions for the future."

"Sara," said Helen, gravely, "suppose that woman were to tell you that sometime you will quarrel with your family, and be driven from home, and finally die in a poorhouse. Wouldn't it make you miserable every time you thought of it?"

"No, indeed, sister," answered the girl, indignantly. "I hope I am not quite so weak-minded as to believe all that. I'd simply think that she had made a mistake. Imagine me quarrelling with my family!"

"But clairvoyants often tell people things that seem just as improbable. What is the use of wasting half a dollar to hear predictions that you might not be able to believe, or if you could believe them, would make you utterly miserable?"

"Oh, it is just for the fun of it, Helen," urged Sara. "Please take us. All the girls are going, and we have never had our fortunes told in our lives."

Before there was time for a reply, Jane came to the door. "The carriage is waiting, Miss Helen," she said. For a moment Helen stood irresolutely beside her dressing-table, stroking her muff in an absent-minded sort of way. Then she said: "I shall have to think about it awhile before I can promise. I shall not be out long. If you girls have nothing planned for the afternoon, suppose you wait for me here. Get out my old college chafing-dish and make yourselves some chocolate, string up my banjo, and I'll give you a package of old letters to read, telling of some of our pranks at school."

"Oh, that will be lovely, Miss Helen," cried Olive; "especially the letters;" and Sara ran to give her sister an impulsive hug.

Unlocking her desk, Helen selected a bundle of letters from one of the pigeonholes. It was tied with her class colours and marked "From Sophia Gordon." "She was my best friend at school," explained Helen, "and my roommate for three years; but being in the class just below me, she had to go through her senior year without me. These letters were written during that time. I have a reason for asking you to read them. Perhaps you will be able to discover it before I come back." With a smile and nod to Olive, and a light kiss on Sara's cheek, she left them to amuse themselves during her absence in any way they chose.

"You read the letters aloud while I make the chocolate," said Sara, as the door closed behind her sister. "We can do the other things afterward."

"There is a photograph in this one, of a girl about your size, Sara," announced Olive, as she opened the first letter. "What's this written under it? 'Timoroso.' What a queer name! But see what a sweet face she has. I wonder who it can be?"

"The letter will probably tell," answered Sara, striking a match to light the alcohol-lamp. "Go on, I am ready to listen."

"My dearest Helen," read Olive. "Here I am back at school in our sunshiny old south room in Baxter Hall, with the same jolly set of girls popping their heads out of their doors, all along the corridor, to joke with each other; the same old teachers and furniture and  surroundings; the same dear old everything, with one exception—my old roommate.

"I know you are dying to hear about my new roommate. She is a freshman by the name of Susannah Talbot, but we have never called her that since the first day. You will find her photograph enclosed, and can see for yourself what a shy little rabbit she is.

"Elsie Gayland came into our room while I was showing Susannah where to put her things as she unpacked. You know how regardlessly outspoken Elsie is, and how thoroughly saturated with her music. She is worse than ever this year, and talks almost entirely in musical terms.

"'How are you two going to chord?' she said, abruptly, to Susannah. 'If Sophia were a sheet of music, she would be marked on every score, Fortissimo, because she is so forcible and aggressive. But you are just the opposite; it seems to me that Timoroso would just suit you. You do not object to a nickname, I hope? Everybody has to put up with one here.'

"Susannah blushed and managed to stammer out that she didn't mind, and ever since then she has been 'Timoroso' to us all. You know Elsie Gayland. She is the same old Elsie. What the Pied Piper was to Hamelin town, she is to this school. We all still flock after her in spite of ourselves, and no matter what she chooses to pipe for us, we dance after her.

"She has a new fad now—palmistry. Yesterday she showed me a book on the subject, that she studied all vacation. It is the weirdest looking thing, bound in black, with white serpents crawling all over the cover. It made me creep to look at it. She says that she is going to give a 'Palmistry Evening' soon, whatever that may be, and tell our fortunes. Timoroso has just come in and says that Elsie is waiting for me, so with 'these few broken remarks,' and a heart full of love, I must leave you for the present.             Devotedly,

"Sophia."

As Olive laid down the letter and took up another, Sara exclaimed, "I see now why sister wanted us to read them. It is something about fortune-telling."

"The next letter is dated a week later," said Olive, beginning to read again.

"It was so lovely of you, Helen, dearest, to write me that good long letter in answer to the scrap I sent. I have put off answering it until I could tell you about our palmistry evening which Elsie gave us last night. She almost got into trouble by passing round little slips of paper in class, on which was written:

8# XXIV. Lc.
Palmistry.

"Miss Hill caught sight of one as it was being passed to Timoroso, and called her up to the desk. Seeing that Tim was almost ready to faint from embarrassment, Elsie spoke up quickly: 'It's mine, Miss Hill. It is just a reference. I had several slipped in here, between the leaves of my algebra.'

"Of course it was a reference. You can easily tell what it referred to when interpreted in the old way. Eight o'clock sharp. Room 24. Elsie.

"'A reference to what, Miss Gayland?' asked Miss Hill, in her most frigid tones.

"'To palmistry,' answered Elsie, calmly. 'A subject which I have been investigating for some time.'

"With that Miss Hill sent Tim back to her seat, and read us a lecture on the folly of such things, and the harm of allowing them to absorb our valuable time. Elsie was cross at some of the things she said, for she firmly believes in chiromancy. 'There can't be anything wrong in it,' she declared to us afterward, 'for papa would not have given me this big, expensive book about it, with all these fine plates. See! Here is an impression of Gladstone's hand, and lots of celebrated people. Miss Hill has no right to class all believers in palmistry with mountebanks and gypsies, and she certainly betrays her ignorance of a noble science when she mixes it up with clairvoyance and common fortune-telling.'

"Still, Miss Hill's remarks made some change in Elsie's plans, for when we gathered in her room at the appointed time, it looked just as usual, although she had intended to have it darkened and hung with black curtains.

"After we had all taken our seats, Elsie retired behind a heavy screen in the corner. She had previously cut two slits in it, through which we were to thrust our hands. She made us take off our rings, so that she could not recognise us by them, and commanded absolute silence. The light was on her side of the screen, and the semi-darkness in which we sat, added to the breathless silence, made us unnaturally solemn. The girls motioned me to put my hands through the screen first; and I wish you could have seen the pantomime they went through as she enumerated my familiar traits of character. They nodded their heads in emphatic agreement, each one growing more eager every moment for her turn, as all recognised the truth of Elsie's reading. Some of us found that we had very odd propensities, but it was Timoroso who made the sensation of the evening. When her turn came I could see that she had become almost frightened at Elsie's remarkable power of discernment, and was much wrought upon by the impressive silence of the dimly lighted room.

"After a moment of careful examination Elsie began: 'This is a psychic hand which shows a delicate constitution, great sensitiveness, and abnormal nervousness. The life line is very short, the head line good, but running too far down into the mount of Luna. That may indicate only unusual imaginative power, or if other lines confirm it, it may mean a tendency to insanity.' Then she gave a startled exclamation and paused a moment. 'Oh, girls!' she cried. 'How interesting! I have never found this mark in a hand before, but it is in one of the plates.'

"'What?' we cried in chorus, breaking the long-enforced silence.

"'It is the suicide line!'

"Poor little Timoroso jerked her hands away, and turned toward us with a frightened face gleaming through the dusk as white as her collar. Her distress was pitiful.

"You see, Elsie had been telling so many truths about us, that poor little Tim believed implicitly in her fortune-telling ability. She felt that her doom was sealed; that the cruel finger of a relentless fate had written it so plainly in her tell-tale palm, that all who saw it might read. She hid her face on my shoulder and sobbed so violently that it put an end to the seance.

"Elsie had to come out from behind the screen to help soothe her. 'Why, Tim, dear, you mustn't take it so to heart!' she insisted. 'Let me look at your hands again. There may be plenty of lines to counteract that one; besides, I am only a beginner, and liable to make a wrong interpretation.'

"By sheer force of her strong, cheery personality, she calmed Tim after awhile, and had her laughing like the gayest of us. Nobody but Elsie could have done it.

"When Miss Hill made an excuse to come in a little after nine o'clock, we were eating apples and telling riddles as demurely as Quaker ladies."

"'SHE HID HER FACE ON MY SHOULDER'"

"'SHE HID HER FACE ON MY SHOULDER'"

When Olive had finished reading this letter aloud, she had to read several more before she came to another mentioning the subject in which she and Sara were most interested; and after that there were only occasional paragraphs scattered here and there among pages of personal news and school happenings.

"I am afraid that Timoroso is going to be ill," wrote Sophia, in one of those gossipy epistles. "She is as white and listless as a tired little ghost. She has slept scarcely any since our palmistry evening, but I did not discover the fact until last night. I woke suddenly to find her standing by the window in the moonlight, with a blanket thrown round her. She was catching her breath in long, choking sobs, and wringing her hands in the greatest distress. The idea that she must sometime take her own life haunts her night and day. I found that she had been brooding over it, taking a morbid interest in all the sensational reports of suicides that she can find in the papers, and that she has been rereading Cleopatra's experiments with poisons."

"Timoroso's case is growing alarming. I have told Elsie, and she feels she is directly responsible for her condition, and bemoans her thoughtlessness in ever telling Tim what she saw in her hand. She is doing all she can now to cheer Tim up and ridicule her out of her morbidness. She is always running in with some funny speech to make us laugh. Of course, all the other girls follow her example, so that poor  little Tim is the most popular girl in school now; but I catch her looking at her hand a dozen times a day, with all the horror in her face that Lady Macbeth's had, over the spots that would not out."

"The crisis came last night. I was awakened by hearing a window stealthily opened, and the moonlight was bright enough to show me Timoroso stepping up on the sill.

"'Tim!' I cried, 'what on earth are you doing?' She turned and looked at me wildly for an instant, and then, running across the room, flung herself down on the bed beside me.

"'Oh, I am so glad I did not do it!' she cried, with a little moan. 'I felt that I must jump out of the window. I am glad you called me. Still,'—she looked round wildly again,—'if I am doomed to such an awful fate, it will have to come sometime, and it might be better to have it over with soon, than to live in this constant dread.'

"When I told Elsie about it, this morning, she cried, and that is something I never saw Elsie Gayland do before.

"'You've got to go with me to see Doctor Phelps about Tim!' she said. 'I can manage to get leave of absence for both of us in one way or another, for I am desperate enough to accomplish anything.'

"'LOOKING AT HER HAND A DOZEN TIMES A DAY.'"

"'LOOKING AT HER HAND A DOZEN TIMES A DAY.'"

"Doctor Phelps listened like a father to Elsie's confession of her thoughtlessness in giving Tim such a nervous shock. 'I used to dabble in phrenology and chiromancy, and such things, when I was young,' he said. 'As guides to character they are certainly interesting and often helpful, but, one should remember, by no means infallible.'

"Then he showed us a little mark on his palm. 'Years ago,' he said, 'I was told that that presaged an early death by drowning. It was to occur between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, and although I was on the water almost daily, I never had the slightest accident. I am over sixty now. Had I been a nervous man, I would probably have suffered much from my apprehensions of danger. Tell that to Miss Talbot for her comfort.'

"He walked back to school with us, and while he waited for Miss Hill to be summoned, Elsie went up-stairs to get her book. When she came down there was the queerest expression on her face I ever saw. 'I have made such a mistake!' she said, in an embarrassed way. 'I can never forgive myself for it. I mistook one line for another, and the one in Tim's hand means something entirely different from what I thought it did. That poor little soul has been suffering all this time solely on account of my ignorance!'

"Doctor Phelps smiled. 'When I was a lad,' he said, 'there was a couplet in my grammar that I often had to parse, which ran in this wise:

"'A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!'"

"Tim's father came to-day. Doctor Phelps telegraphed for him immediately after leaving here yesterday, and they have taken her away to a sanitarium. Doctor Phelps said that she was not able to stand the long journey home, and that her nervous condition was so serious that she must have immediate attention.

"Elsie is inconsolable, although Doctor Phelps assures her that Tim would undoubtedly have broken down before the close of the year, from the mere strain of school life; she is such a delicate little thing."

"Just a month to-day since Tim left. It will be a full year before she is well and strong again, Doctor Phelps says, and maybe longer. He was invited to speak in the chapel, this morning, and I wish you could have heard what he said on the influence of the imagination. He told some comical stories of patients he had had, who could imagine themselves possessed of a new disease every week.

"Then he spoke of clairvoyants, and mediums, and fortune-tellers of every kind. 'It is one of the kindest provisions of Providence,' he added, 'that we are allowed to see only one minute at a time. Suppose that we could look ahead into the years, and see some terrible calamity coming upon us, with the deadly certainty that every nightfall was bringing it one step nearer. What an agony of apprehension we would be in as the month approached—then the week, the day, and finally the hour! What man could stand the strain of such prolonged torture?

"'Or, suppose it were some joy that we looked forward to. When it came it would be robbed of its bloom by those long years of constant anticipation. It is the unexpected good fortune, the bits of happiness that come to us as complete surprises, which give us the keenest thrills of enjoyment.'

"'ASKED ME TO HUNT UP ALL THE REFERENCES'"

"'ASKED ME TO HUNT UP ALL THE REFERENCES'"

"Whatever Doctor Phelps says is law and gospel with Elsie Gayland, and as she never does anything half-way, I was not surprised when she walked into my room with her book on chiromancy, and put it in the fire. As she stood, grimly watching it burn, she said: 'I thought I should go through the floor when Doctor Phelps called me into the library just now. He gave me this big concordance, and asked me to hunt up all the references in my Bible under the words "hand" and "path," and all the promises for guidance and safety that are given to those who commit themselves into the Eternal keeping. He wants me to read them to Timoroso sometime soon, for he says that nothing but an abiding consciousness that she is in the hollow of an Omnipotent hand will bring her the peace of mind that is essential to her recovery.'"

Olive gathered the letters together, and as she tied them with the white and scarlet ribbons, Helen came back from her frosty drive.

"I thought you would want to hear the sequel," she said, smiling at their eager questions, as she sat down to the cup of steaming chocolate that Sara poured for her.

"Timoroso is entirely well now. She spent this winter in the south of France, and I want you to see the calendar she sent me this Christmas. Such a beautiful little water colour, with the text illuminated as the old monks used to do it."

Sara and Olive leaned over her shoulder to examine the card Helen took from her desk, and read the verse together, half under their breath:

"Build a little fence of trust
Around to-day.
Fill the space with loving deeds
And therein stay.
Look not through the sheltering bars
 Upon to-morrow;
God will help thee bear what comes
Of joy or sorrow."

Helen did not see the glance that passed between the girls as they finished reading, but she was not surprised that there was never anything more said about consulting the clairvoyant at the Metropole.