The day drags. The oppressive cover of grey cloud hangs over the countryside like a fire retardant blanket, preventing any hint of sun from making its way to the house. The guests, hindered from making any excursions due to the weather, languish on various sofas and chairs. Everyone seems listlessly anxious, just marking time until the long-awaited illusion in the evening. Lord Montague vanishes after breakfast, Professor Grabiner remains (I assume) holed up in his father's study, and Professor Potsdam is nowhere to be found.
I occupy myself with my new book, but find myself spacing out, unable to concentrate, and having to flip back pages to get back to the story. The short book takes me hours to finish, but the end leaves me just as hollow as I felt at breakfast - another story that ends with not only death, but a deluded woman who was blind to the horrors perpetrated by her own fiance. It's all I can do to keep from throwing the book against the wall
It's lunch by the time I finish, and I go into the dining room more out of a sense of obligation than hunger. There's still no sign of Lord Montague, Professor Grabiner or Professor Potsdam, so I take it on myself to try to speak to everyone as they serve themselves lunch. Although I don't have to say much besides commiserating over the terrible weather, I find the forced courtesy exhausting, and suddenly feel guilty about leaving Professor Grabiner to handle everyone at dinner last night.
Most of the guests decide to take post-lunch naps, news of which I greet with a bit more enthusiasm than politeness requires. I consider following suit-my sleepless night having taken its toll - but before I make up my mind, Mrs. Craft catches my eye and shakes a palm-sized wooden box at me, jerking her head to tell me to follow her into another room. I guess it's time for my card reading, then.
I follow Mrs. Craft into the fussy little sitting room with the paintings of flowers that we had explored yesterday. The windows face east, so I assume it's some sort of morning room. It'll be an unpopular choice for sitting after lunch, even for those who don't decide to take naps.
Mrs. Craft pulls a spindly chair up to a small coffee table, and I do the same. She takes a deck of cards out of the wooden box and starts to shuffle them, riffling them together, then bridging them so that they fall together with a satisfying snap. The cards are a bit bigger than a normal deck, but Mrs. Craft has large hands and long fingers, and handles them adroitly. I look at them with some curiosity. I've seen tarot cards in movies, and some of my friends from before I went to Iris used to like to go to see psychics who did tarot or palm readings for them, but I never went along. I didn't have much patience with psychics when I knew that real magic existed. I wonder, suddenly, whether I'm just as much of a snob as Professor Grabiner is - and the thought isn't very heartening.
"I wish you wouldn't glower like that," says Mrs. Craft, giving the cards another snap. "You've been moping around all morning. It's unbecoming, especially in one so young. Had a row with your husband, then?"
"Not exactly," I say. "He's just in a bad mood. He'll come around eventually, he always does. I just have to figure out whether I want to keep waiting for him."
I hadn't meant to be quite so candid, but Mrs. Craft just nods sympathetically. "Husbands can be tricky," she says. "And as much as the powers that be deplore the state of marriage nowadays, I think there's something to be said for being able to cut one's losses if it comes to that."
"You didn't, though," I say, remembering that Professor Grabiner had said she was a widow.
If she's offended by the personal comment, she doesn't show it. "Times were rather different then," she says. "Sometimes I'm baffled at just how different, actually. I didn't have quite so many opportunities as you do, back when I was first married. Cut the cards into three piles, now, and then put them back together in any order you'd like. While you do that, think of a question you'd like answered. It can be specific or general, and you don't have to tell me, if you don't want to."
I cut the cards as she instructs, but I can't think of a question - or rather, I can think of too many. All the questions that have swirled in my head since I came to England flick past me, but none of them seem to be questions that can be answered by a pack of cards. The only coherent thought I manage to put together as I stack the cards back up is what the hell am I supposed to do now? I'm way too embarrassed to say that out loud, so I hand Mrs. Craft her cards in silence.
"Right then," she says with brisk efficiency. "The important part of reading cards is that each card may mean different things to different people, depending on their outlook, or even the question they want answered at that particular moment. So if my interpretation seems odd, or wrong, we can discuss what you think it might mean instead, and see if we can't work out a reasonable answer for you."
This sounds like an awfully haphazard way to divine someone's fortune, but I decide that Mrs. Craft probably knows more about what she's doing than I do, so I don't say anything.
"First card," she begins, "might represent you, your current environment, or the heart of the issue you're concerned with." She turns a card over, and I peer at it.
"Is that supposed to be me?" I ask.
"Do you think it is?" she asks, eagerly.
"Well..." I start. "It's not very flattering, is it?"
"The Fool doesn't mean you're stupid," she says, reassuring. It represents innocence, and the start of a new journey."
"He's walking off a cliff!"
"It's symbolic - someone with a lot to learn!"
My shoulders sag. "Yeah, I guess it's me."
"Thought so!" she says. Her enthusiasm rivals Professor Potsdam's. "Second card, a changing or opposing factor, something that is seriously impacting your life right now. Together, the first and second cards are the main dynamic regarding the issue about which you're concerned." She flips the card on top of the first, then makes a face. "Hmph. I thought this one would come up."
"Knight of swords?" I ask, reading the title at the bottom of the card, which shows a charging knight on horseback.
"Usually represents a youngish man with dark hair, an intellectual... but domineering, sarcastic, tactless, and rather prone to extremes."
It's pretty clear who this card represents. "Oh," I say, half dismayed and half fascinated - maybe Mrs. Craft can read the future in cards after all.
"Third card," she continues merrily, "is the cause of the problem, or a kind of unconscious influence... " She lays the card down. "Justice, which symbolizes balance, accountability, or-"
"Or trying to make the right decision?" I ask.
"You're quite good at this," she responds with a small smile.
"What's next?" Now I'm engrossed.
"Fourth card is a receding influence from the past, but something that your current emotional state rests upon, something that still affects you in your current situation." She flips the card. "Ten of cups."
"That looks nice," I say, surveying the people depicted on the card under an arch made of goblets. "Is it a family?"
"A happy family, a peaceful family," Mrs. Craft replies. "I assume you had a happy childhood - no domestic tension, nothing to worry you?"
"Ye-es," I say warily, "but lately it's been a little tough because - um-" I stop myself before admitting I've been distanced from my parents because I'm at boarding school to study magic. "All the new things in my life have sort of taken up my time."
She nods. "Yes, that's why it's a receding influence, something you can't count on as part of your life any more. But that's a natural part of growing up, you know," she continues. "You can't count on your family to take care of you forever. You should know that as a married woman."
"Right," I say. "Let's do the next one." I don't want to linger on my rapidly diminishing happy family life, but she's right - it is a thing of the past.
"Fifth card - something that you are conscious of, something that motivates your actions, like a goal or aspiration." She flips the card. "Six of wands, that symbolizes victory or success."
The man on horseback depicted on the card does look as though he's in a victory parade. "And that's something that's going to happen in the future?"
"It's something you'd like to happen in the future," she corrects, "but not something guaranteed. Now, the sixth card is something that is approaching in the future - the opposite of the fourth card, which depicted an influence from the past." She flips. "Two of cups - that's interesting," she says.
I look at the picture of a man and a woman, extending cups to each other. "Why?"
"Well, it's the minor arcana equivalent to The Lovers - that's a major arcana card symbolizing a deep relationship based on love. The two of cups is more... tentative, less forceful, something that's developing rather than something that's already there. It can also symbolize the end of a division, a truce between two people."
"A truce..." I say, considering. That would at least be something.
"You see? I told you there wasn't anything to worry about," she says with a smile.
"So that's the reading?" I ask.
"There's still four more cards to go," she says, "including the outcome."
"All right, seventh card?"
"Seventh card is you as you see yourself, your potential, or the unique talents that you bring to the situation."
She turns the card, and I start, nearly knocking my chair backwards before I manage to catch it. "The magician?"
"Ah yes, it symbolizes the ability to take action and using the resources you have at your disposal to affect change."
I unclench, hoping she didn't register my unusual reaction to the card. Though I suppose it could mean using my magical ability to get the outcome that I want - whatever victory to which I'm apparently aspiring.
"Eighth card - outside influences, or how others may see you. She flips the card and I'm horrified.
"What is that?" I say aghast. The card shows a woman tied up and blindfolded in a fence of swords.
"You tell me," says Mrs. Craft. I screw up my face, looking at the card.
"Well... she looks trapped. And helpless."
"Eight of swords. Maybe someone's underestimating you," suggests Mrs. Craft, with a smirk.
"Maybe," I agree, reluctantly. "Next card, please."
"All right. Ninth card is a guide as to how to proceed, and what you should do to obtain the result you want."
The card features a man on a terrace, staring into the distance, holding a globe and flanked by two staffs.
"Two of wands," says Mrs. Craft. "Very interesting."
I like the look of the card, but I'm not sure what it means. "Why is that?"
"It's a complimentary card to the Magician. While the Magician symbolizes the potential and ability to take action, the two of wands represents the action itself."
I give her a blank look.
"What I'm trying to say is that the two cards together represent the resources to take action-" she taps the Magician card- "and committing that act." She taps two of wands.
"So... I should be successful?" I ask.
"Well, let's find out," she says, and flips the final card. Her expression immediately changes - she scrunches her forehead and purses her lips.
"The Empress?" The card shows a blonde woman reclining on a sofa, looking very relaxed and regal, with a crown and scepter. She looks about the opposite of how I feel at the moment.
"Ye-es... she symbolizes power, particularly that which comes from nature and, ah... fertility. And motherhood."
"From...?" I start, as that last word sinks in.
"Maybe you'll get pregnant!" Mrs. Craft says enthusiastically, and manages to last for about two seconds before the expression on my face sends her howling with laughter.
"That's not funny," I protest, but she just laughs harder, so I just heave a sigh and wait until her cackling fit runs its course. By the time it does, tears are streaming down her cheeks, and I'm glowering.
"I'm not getting pregnant," I say, indignant, as she catches her breath.
"Please don't," she gasps, "you're in high school, for God's sake!"
"You don't have anything to worry about," I mutter, mutinous.
"Thank goodness," she says, and wipes a tear out of a corner of one eye.
"Then what does it mean?" I ask, wanting to get back to the subject at hand.
"I'm not quite sure," she admits. "In the context of this reading particularly, it's a very odd card to come up, especially in the outcome position. It's very representative of maternity, in the literal as well as the symbolic sense - nature, springtime, that kind of thing. If you're absolutely sure-"
"I'm absolutely sure., I say flatly. Barring immaculate conception, I'm about as far from getting pregnant as a woman can get.
"It might mean... oh, nurturing something, developing something, using the talent you have and the actions you take to create something new." She beams.
She's right - it really doesn't sound so bad, if she puts it that way. I venture a tentative smile.
"Maybe you'll become a teacher!" Mrs. Craft suggests brightly.
"Maybe," I start, considering. Actually, becoming a teacher doesn't sound so bad, and it would be in keeping with Mrs. Craft's suggestion that I nurture something new with my talents - once they're finished being nurtured themselves, that is. "You were a teacher, right? History?" I don't even know how anyone goes about becoming a teacher, much less a teacher of magic. I'd never thought to ask my mother how she decided to be a teacher, or what she had to study in order to become one. What I know of Professor Grabiner's background - going to the topmost magical school in the United States under an assumed name, then suddenly dropping his studies and applying to teach - doesn't really give me a good idea of what people do under more normal circumstances.
"Yes, though I didn't come to it quite so early in life," says Mrs. Craft. "I didn't go to university myself until I was in my forties - and don't you even think of doing the same thing, I don't care what that husband of yours says." She turns on me with a fierce expression.
"Why didn't you go?" I ask.
"Because I was married, of course," she says with a touch of sarcasm in her voice.
"But that's no reason not to go to university," I start, incredulous.
"My parents certainly thought it was," Mrs. Craft replies, "and the husband they picked out for me quite agreed with them."
"That's horrible," I say, a bit chagrined.
"Yes, and unfortunately at the time a married woman still couldn't control her own income without her husband's permission - not that I had much income to begin with; my parents gave everything to my brother. I was the oldest, but I was married and a woman - so what would I need with my own money?" She rolls her eyes. "The joke was on them in the end - when my husband died, I was able to use his money to go to school anyway. It only took me twenty years." She grins at me, and despite the morbidity of the subject, I find myself grinning back.
"It turned out to be a good thing, too - my brother wasn't ever much for money management, so by the time he died, there wasn't much of my family's money left. He was a dreamer, and far too trusting. I was always the practical one in the family."
"So they knew that, but they disinherited you just because you were a girl?" I ask, incredulous.
She doesn't answer, but her mouth gives an involuntary downward twitch.
"It wasn't just because you were a girl," I say. I had originally meant it to be a question, but as I say it, my voice turns downward, not upward.
"Well I can't say for sure," she says, suddenly testy, "but - oh, it doesn't even make a difference now, but-" She cuts off, suddenly looking more uncertain than I've ever seen her before. It's disconcerting, but I'm too curious to change the subject now.
"Did something happen?" I ask. She gives me a hard look, and for a long moment, I think she might not answer, and instead storm out of the room or even strike me across the face. But none of these things happen, and finally she opens her mouth to speak.
"When I was thirteen I saw - no, felt - no. Did something very odd," she says. "It was the spring of 1941, the tail end of the Blitz - though at the time, I thought it would last forever. I thought I'd never live through another night without hearing air-raid sirens, or seeing light on the horizon and knowing it was a fire, not the dawn..." Her eyes go a bit vacant as she recalls this, and I feel a sudden shiver, just a tiny intimation of how terrifying it must have been to live through bombings night after night.
"Well," Mrs. Craft says, putting the snap back into her voice, "everything seems like it'll last forever when you're young. At any rate, we all hated staying in bomb shelters - my family, that is - the shelters were so full of terrified people, and terror can be infectious. We much preferred to stay home and practice that very British sort of stubbornness of pretending nothing was wrong when bombs were falling all around us. One night there was a raid, and the explosions sounded so close that I was sure we'd be hit at any moment, but we weren't. When the sun came up, I went into the yard to see if anything had happened to the houses surrounding ours, and that's when I saw it."
"The bomb," she says, with a wry smile. "An incendiary bomb that had landed in our yard, but hadn't exploded."
My jaw drops. "It hadn't exploded?" is all I can think of to say.
She shakes her head, smile deepening. "It was just sitting there, this little cylinder in our back garden. But it was live."
"How did you know?"
The smile on her face disappears, and she looks puzzled. "I don't know how I knew, I just knew, looking at the thing, that it would go off with just the slightest tap. And there was my little brother calling me, "Tabitha, what is it,' and about to run out into the yard."
"So what did you do?" I ask, breathless and for the moment forgetting that both Mrs. Craft and her brother had obviously lived through it.
"Well I certainly didn't think about it much, except that I had to keep Timothy away from it. I ran to the thing and picked it up, very slowly."
I stare at her, too shocked to comment.
"I could feel it practically humming in my hands, as though it really was alive - and Timothy was about to knock into me so I just thought at the thing and suddenly-" She jerks her hands up. "It was dead."
"Dead?" I echo.
"Timothy slammed into me and I dropped it on the ground, but it didn't go off. And I knew it wouldn't because I'd stopped it somehow. My father was absolutely livid that I'd do something so foolish; he picked the bomb up, put it into a firebucket, and ran it outside to find a bobby to take the thing away. When he got back he screamed at me until he was red in the face, saying it was a good thing the bomb had turned out to be a dud. But it hadn't been, and of course, I screamed that right back at him." She sighs. "My father and I share the same rather stubborn streak, so we both dug our heels in, and refused to budge - even though part of me knew that I was arguing the impossible."
Suddenly, I feel an uncomfortable sensation in my stomach. "And you said this was when you were thirteen?" I ask.
"Yes, and believe it or not, I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday." Her face brightens with a smile. "It was the closest thing I've ever come to, well..."
"Magic," I finish, the sinking sensation intensifying.
"Yes, and unfortunately my relationship with my parents was never quite the same," she replies. "We didn't talk about the bomb after that day - almost as though they'd forgotten about it, or nearly - but they started looking at me as though I were some sort of freak. I pretended I had forgotten about it myself, but I never did. They were quite pleased to pack me off to a husband at seventeen, never mind that I threw a fit about wanting to go to university. Ever since that day they thought I was batty, so they wound up disinheriting me in favor of Timothy. But-" She cuts off. "Are you all right, Eliza? I told you it was for the best."
But I'm not listening anymore. I'm trying to battle the tears that are stinging my eyes. "I-" I start, "I have to go." I bolt out of my seat and toward the door, nearly knocking over the spindly card-covered table. When I reach the door I look back over my shoulder to see Mrs. Craft staring at me as though I was the one who had gone batty. "Uh - thanks for the card reading," I say before dashing into the hall.
I barely have a clear idea of what I'm doing before I skid to a halt in front of Lord Montague's study door and pound on it.