The library looked tranquil enough as I entered it, and the Sibyl — if Sibyl she were — was seated snugly enough in an easy-chair at the chimney- corner. She had on a red cloak and a black bonnet: or rather, a broad- brimmed gipsy hat, tied down with a striped handkerchief under her chin. An extinguished candle stood on the table; she was bending over the fire, and seemed reading in a little black book, like a prayer-book, by the light of the blaze: she muttered the words to herself, as most old women do, while she read; she did not desist immediately on my entrance: it appeared she wished to finish a paragraph.
I stood on the rug and warmed my hands, which were rather cold with sitting at a distance from the drawing-room fire. I felt now as composed as ever I did in my life: there was nothing indeed in the gipsy's appearance to trouble one's calm. She shut her book and slowly looked up; her hat-brim partially shaded her face, yet I could see, as she raised it, that it was a strange one. It looked all brown and black: elf- locks bristled out from beneath a white band which passed under her chin, and came half over her cheeks, or rather jaws: her eye confronted me at once, with a bold and direct gaze.
"Well, and you want your fortune told?" she said, in a voice as decided as her glance, as harsh as her features.
"I don't care about it, mother; you may please yourself: but I ought to warn you, I have no faith."
"It's like your impudence to say so: I expected it of you; I heard it in your step as you crossed the threshold."
"Did you? You've a quick ear."
"I have; and a quick eye and a quick brain."
"You need them all in your trade."
"I do; especially when I've customers like you to deal with. Why don't you tremble?"
"I'm not cold."
"Why don't you turn pale?"
"I am not sick."
"Why don't you consult my art?"
"I'm not silly."
The old crone "nichered" a laugh under her bonnet and bandage; she then drew out a short black pipe, and lighting it began to smoke. Having indulged a while in this sedative, she raised her bent body, took the pipe from her lips, and while gazing steadily at the fire, said very deliberately — "You are cold; you are sick; and you are silly."
"Prove it," I rejoined.
"I will, in few words. You are cold, because you are alone: no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you. You are sick; because the best of feelings, the highest and the sweetest given to man, keeps far away from you. You are silly, because, suffer as you may, you will not beckon it to approach, nor will you stir one step to meet it where it waits you."
She again put her short black pipe to her lips, and renewed her smoking with vigour.
"You might say all that to almost any one who you knew lived as a solitary dependent in a great house."
"I might say it to almost any one: but would it be true of almost any one?"
"In my circumstances."
"Yes; just so, in your circumstances: but find me another precisely placed as you are."
"It would be easy to find you thousands."
"You could scarcely find me one. If you knew it, you are peculiarly situated: very near happiness; yes, within reach of it. The materials are all prepared; there only wants a movement to combine them. Chance laid them somewhat apart; let them be once approached and bliss results."
"I don't understand enigmas. I never could guess a riddle in my life."
"If you wish me to speak more plainly, show me your palm."
"And I must cross it with silver, I suppose?"
"To be sure."
I gave her a shilling: she put it into an old stocking-foot which she took out of her pocket, and having tied it round and returned it, she told me to hold out my hand. I did. She approached her face to the palm, and pored over it without touching it.
"It is too fine," said she. "I can make nothing of such a hand as that; almost without lines: besides, what is in a palm? Destiny is not written there."
"I believe you," said I.
"No," she continued, "it is in the face: on the forehead, about the eyes, in the lines of the mouth. Kneel, and lift up your head."
"Ah! now you are coming to reality," I said, as I obeyed her. "I shall begin to put some faith in you presently."
I knelt within half a yard of her. She stirred the fire, so that a ripple of light broke from the disturbed coal: the glare, however, as she sat, only threw her face into deeper shadow: mine, it illumined.
"I wonder with what feelings you came to me to-night," she said, when she had examined me a while. "I wonder what thoughts are busy in your heart during all the hours you sit in yonder room with the fine people flitting before you like shapes in a magic-lantern: just as little sympathetic communion passing between you and them as if they were really mere shadows of human forms, and not the actual substance."
"I feel tired often, sleepy sometimes, but seldom sad."
"Then you have some secret hope to buoy you up and please you with whispers of the future?"
"Not I. The utmost I hope is, to save money enough out of my earnings to set up a school some day in a little house rented by myself."
"A mean nutriment for the spirit to exist on: and sitting in that window- seat (you see I know your habits ) — "
"You have learned them from the servants."
"Ah! you think yourself sharp. Well, perhaps I have: to speak truth, I have an acquaintance with one of them, Mrs. Poole — "
I started to my feet when I heard the name.
"You have — have you?" thought I; "there is diablerie in the business after all, then!"
"Don't be alarmed," continued the strange being; "she's a safe hand is Mrs. Poole: close and quiet; any one may repose confidence in her. But, as I was saying: sitting in that window-seat, do you think of nothing but your future school? Have you no present interest in any of the company who occupy the sofas and chairs before you? Is there not one face you study? one figure whose movements you follow with at least curiosity?"
"I like to observe all the faces and all the figures."
"But do you never single one from the rest — or it may be, two?"
"I do frequently; when the gestures or looks of a pair seem telling a tale: it amuses me to watch them."
"What tale do you like best to hear?"
"Oh, I have not much choice! They generally run on the same theme — courtship; and promise to end in the same catastrophe — marriage."
"And do you like that monotonous theme?"
"Positively, I don't care about it: it is nothing to me."