T was Lady Windermere's last reception before Easter,
and Bentinck House was even more crowded than usual. Six Cabinet
Ministers had come on from the Speaker's Levee in their stars
and ribands, all the pretty women wore their smartest dresses,
and at the end of the picture-gallery stood the Princess Sophia
of Carlsruhe, a heavy Tartar-looking lady, with tiny black eyes
and wonderful emeralds, talking bad French at the top of her
voice, and laughing immoderately at everything that was said
to her. It was certainly a wonderful medley of people. Gorgeous
peeresses chatted affably to violent Radicals, popular preachers
brushed coat-tails with eminent sceptics, a perfect bevy of bishops
kept following a stout prima-donna from room to room, on the
staircase stood several Royal Academicians, disguised as artists,
and it was said that at one time the supper-room was absolutely
crammed with geniuses. In fact, it was one of Lady Windermere's
best nights, and the Princess stayed till nearly half-past eleven.
As soon as she had gone, Lady
Windermere returned to the picture- gallery, where a celebrated
political economist was solemnly explaining the scientific theory
of music to an indignant virtuoso from Hungary, and began to
talk to the Duchess of Paisley. She looked wonderfully beautiful
with her grand ivory throat, her large blue forget-me-not eyes,
and her heavy coils of golden hair. Or pur they were
not that pale straw colour that nowadays usurps the gracious
name of gold, but such gold as is woven into sunbeams or hidden
in strange amber; and they gave to her face something of the
frame of a saint, with not a little of the fascination of a sinner.
She was a curious psychological study. Early in life she had
discovered the important truth that nothing looks so like innocence
as an indiscretion; and by a series of reckless escapades, half
of them quite harmless, she had acquired all the privileges of
a personality. She had more than once changed her husband; indeed,
Debrett credits her with three marriages; but as she had never
changed her lover, the world had long ago ceased to talk scandal
about her. She was now forty years of age, childless, and with
that inordinate passion for pleasure which is the secret of remaining
Suddenly she looked eagerly round
the room, and said, in her clear contralto voice, 'Where is my
'Your what, Gladys?' exclaimed
the Duchess, giving an involuntary start.
'My cheiromantist, Duchess; I
can't live without him at present.'
'Dear Gladys! you are always
so original,' murmured the Duchess, trying to remember what a
cheiromantist really was, and hoping it was not the same as a
'He comes to see my hand twice
a week regularly,' continued Lady Windermere, 'and is most interesting
'Good heavens!' said the Duchess
to herself, 'he is a sort of cheiropodist after all. How very
dreadful. I hope he is a foreigner at any rate. It wouldn't be
quite so bad then.'
'I must certainly introduce him
'Introduce him!' cried the Duchess;
'you don't mean to say he is here?' and she began looking about
for a small tortoise-shell fan and a very tattered lace shawl,
so as to be ready to go at a moment's notice.
'Of course he is here; I would
not dream of giving a party without him. He tells me I have a
pure psychic hand, and that if my thumb had been the least little
bit shorter, I should have been a confirmed pessimist, and gone
into a convent.'
'Oh, I see!' said the Duchess,
feeling very much relieved; 'he tells fortunes, I suppose?'
'And misfortunes, too,' answered
Lady Windermere, 'any amount of them. Next year, for instance,
I am in great danger, both by land and sea, so I am going to
live in a balloon, and draw up my dinner in a basket every evening.
It is all written down on my little finger, or on the palm of
my hand, I forget which.'
'But surely that is tempting
'My dear Duchess, surely Providence
can resist temptation by this time. I think every one should
have their hands told once a month, so as to know what not to
do. Of course, one does it all the same, but it is so pleasant
to be warned. Now if some one doesn't go and fetch Mr. Podgers
at once, I shall have to go myself.'
'Let me go, Lady Windermere,'
said a tall handsome young man, who was standing by, listening
to the conversation with an amused smile.
'Thanks so much, Lord Arthur;
but I am afraid you wouldn't recognise him.'
'If he is as wonderful as you
say, Lady Windermere, I couldn't well miss him. Tell me what
he is like, and I'll bring him to you at once.'
'Well, he is not a bit like a
cheiromantist. I mean he is not mysterious, or esoteric, or romantic-looking.
He is a little, stout man, with a funny, bald head, and great
gold-rimmed spectacles; something between a family doctor and
a country attorney. I'm really very sorry, but it is not my fault.
People are so annoying. All my pianists look exactly like poets,
and all my poets look exactly like pianists; and I remember last
season asking a most dreadful conspirator to dinner, a man who
had blown up ever so many people, and always wore a coat of mail,
and carried a dagger up his shirt-sleeve; and do you know that
when he came he looked just like a nice old clergyman, and cracked
jokes all the evening? Of course, he was very amusing, and all
that, but I was awfully disappointed; and when I asked him about
the coat of mail, he only laughed, and said it was far too cold
to wear in England. Ah, here is Mr. Podgers! Now, Mr. Podgers,
I want you to tell the Duchess of Paisley's hand. Duchess, you
must take your glove off. No, not the left hand, the other.'
'Dear Gladys, I really don't
think it is quite right,' said the Duchess, feebly unbuttoning
a rather soiled kid glove.
'Nothing interesting ever is,'
said Lady Windermere: 'on a fait le monde ainsi. But I
must introduce you. Duchess, this is Mr. Podgers, my pet cheiromantist.
Mr. Podgers, this is the Duchess of Paisley, and if you say that
she has a larger mountain of the moon than I have, I will never
believe in you again.'
'I am sure, Gladys, there is
nothing of the kind in my hand,' said the Duchess gravely.
'Your Grace is quite right,'
said Mr. Podgers, glancing at the little fat hand with its short
square fingers, 'the mountain of the moon is not developed. The
line of life, however, is excellent. Kindly bend the wrist. Thank
you. Three distinct lines on the rascette! You will live
to a great age, Duchess, and be extremely happy. Ambition
very moderate, line of intellect not exaggerated, line of heart
'Now, do be indiscreet, Mr. Podgers,'
cried Lady Windermere.
'Nothing would give me greater
pleasure,' said Mr. Podgers, bowing, 'if the Duchess ever had
been, but I am sorry to say that I see great permanence of affection,
combined with a strong sense of duty.'
'Pray go on, Mr. Podgers,' said
the Duchess, looking quite pleased.
'Economy is not the least of
your Grace's virtues,' continued Mr. Podgers, and Lady Windermere
went off into fits of laughter.
'Economy is a very good thing,'
remarked the Duchess complacently; 'when I married Paisley he
had eleven castles, and not a single house fit to live in.'
'And now he has twelve houses,
and not a single castle,' cried Lady Windermere.
'Well, my dear,' said the Duchess,
'I like '
'Comfort,' said Mr. Podgers,
'and modern improvements, and hot water laid on in every bedroom.
Your Grace is quite right. Comfort is the only thing our civilisation
can give us.
'You have told the Duchess's
character admirably, Mr. Podgers, and now you must tell Lady
Flora's'; and in answer to a nod from the smiling hostess, a
tall girl, with sandy Scotch hair, and high shoulder-blades,
stepped awkwardly from behind the sofa, and held out a long,
bony hand with spatulate fingers.
'Ah, a pianist! I see,' said
Mr. Podgers, 'an excellent pianist, but perhaps hardly a musician.
Very reserved, very honest, and with a great love of animals.'
'Quite true!' exclaimed the Duchess,
turning to Lady Windermere, 'absolutely true! Flora keeps two
dozen collie dogs at Macloskie, and would turn our town house
into a menagerie if her father would let her.'
'Well, that is just what I do
with my house every Thursday evening,' cried Lady Windermere,
laughing, 'only I like lions better than collie dogs.'
'Your one mistake, Lady Windermere,'
said Mr. Podgers, with a pompous bow.
'If a woman can't make her mistakes
charming, she is only a female,' was the answer. 'But you must
read some more hands for us. Come, Sir Thomas, show Mr. Podgers
yours'; and a genial- looking old gentleman, in a white waistcoat,
came forward, and held out a thick rugged hand, with a very long
'An adventurous nature; four
long voyages in the past, and one to come. Been ship-wrecked
three times. No, only twice, but in danger of a shipwreck your
next journey. A strong Conservative, very punctual, and with
a passion for collecting curiosities. Had a severe illness between
the ages sixteen and eighteen. Was left a fortune when about
thirty. Great aversion to cats and Radicals.'
'Extraordinary!' exclaimed Sir
Thomas; 'you must really tell my wife's hand, too.'
'Your second wife's,' said Mr.
Podgers quietly, still keeping Sir Thomas's hand in his. 'Your
second wife's. I shall be charmed'; but Lady Marvel, a melancholy-looking
woman, with brown hair and sentimental eyelashes, entirely declined
to have her past or her future exposed; and nothing that Lady
Windermere could do would induce Monsieur de Koloff, the Russian
Ambassador, even to take his gloves off. In fact, many people
seemed afraid to face the odd little man with his stereotyped
smile, his gold spectacles, and his bright, beady eyes; and when
he told poor Lady Fermor, right out before every one, that she
did not care a bit for music, but was extremely fond of musicians,
it was generally felt that cheiromancy was a most dangerous science,
and one that ought not to be encouraged, except in a tete-a-tete.
Lord Arthur Savile, however,
who did not know anything about Lady Fermor's unfortunate story,
and who had been watching Mr. Podgers with a great deal of interest,
was filled with an immense curiosity to have his own hand read,
and feeling somewhat shy about putting himself forward, crossed
over the room to where Lady Windermere was sitting, and, with
a charming blush, asked her if she thought Mr. Podgers would
'Of course, he won't mind,' said
Lady Windermere, 'that is what he is here for. All my lions,
Lord Arthur, are performing lions, and jump through hoops whenever
I ask them. But I must warn you beforehand that I shall tell
Sybil everything. She is coming to lunch with me to-morrow, to
talk about bonnets, and if Mr. Podgers finds out that you have
a bad temper, or a tendency to gout, or a wife living in Bayswater,
I shall certainly let her know all about it.'
Lord Arthur smiled, and shook
his head. 'I am not afraid,' he answered. 'Sybil knows me as
well as I know her.'
'Ah! I am a little sorry to hear
you say that. The proper basis for marriage is a mutual misunderstanding.
No, I am not at all cynical, I have merely got experience, which,
however, is very much the same thing. Mr. Podgers, Lord Arthur
Savile is dying to have his hand read. Don't tell him that he
is engaged to one of the most beautiful girls in London, because
that appeared in the Morning Post a month ago.
'Dear Lady Windermere,' cried
the Marchioness of Jedburgh, 'do let Mr. Podgers stay here a
little longer. He has just told me I should go on the stage,
and I am so interested.'
'If he has told you that, Lady
Jedburgh, I shall certainly take him away. Come over at once,
Mr. Podgers, and read Lord Arthur's hand.'
'Well,' said Lady Jedburgh, making
a little moue as she rose from the sofa, 'if I am not
to be allowed to go on the stage, I must be allowed to be part
of the audience at any rate.'
'Of course; we are all going
to be part of the audience,' said Lady Windermere; 'and now,
Mr. Podgers, be sure and tell us something nice. Lord Arthur
is one of my special favourites.'
But when Mr. Podgers saw Lord
Arthur's hand he grew curiously pale, and said nothing. A shudder
seemed to pass through him, and his great bushy eyebrows twitched
convulsively, in an odd, irritating way they had when he was
puzzled. Then some huge beads of perspiration broke out on his
yellow forehead, like a poisonous dew, and his fat fingers grew
cold and clammy.
Lord Arthur did not fail to notice
these strange signs of agitation, and, for the first time in
his life, he himself felt fear. His impulse was to rush from
the room, but he restrained himself. It was better to know the
worst, whatever it was, than to be left in this hideous uncertainty.
'I am waiting, Mr. Podgers,'
'We are all waiting,' cried Lady
Windermere, in her quick, impatient manner, but the cheiromantist
made no reply.
'I believe Arthur is going on
the stage,' said Lady Jedburgh, 'and that, after your scolding,
Mr. Podgers is afraid to tell him so.'
Suddenly Mr. Podgers dropped
Lord Arthur's right hand, and seized hold of his left, bending
down so low to examine it that the gold rims of his spectacles
seemed almost to touch the palm. For a moment his face became
a white mask of horror, but he soon recovered his SANG-FROID,
and looking up at Lady Windermere, said with a forced smile,
'It is the hand of a charming young man.
'Of course it is!' answered Lady
Windermere, 'but will he be a charming husband? That is what
I want to know.'
'All charming young men are,'
said Mr. Podgers.
'I don't think a husband should
be too fascinating,' murmured Lady Jedburgh pensively, 'it is
'My dear child, they never are
too fascinating,' cried Lady Windermere. 'But what I want are
details. Details are the only things that interest. What is going
to happen to Lord Arthur?'
'Well, within the next few months
Lord Arthur will go a voyage '
'Oh yes, his honeymoon, of course!'
'And lose a relative.'
'Not his sister, I hope?' said
Lady Jedburgh, in a piteous tone of voice.
'Certainly not his sister,' answered
Mr. Podgers, with a deprecating wave of the hand, 'a distant
'Well, I am dreadfully disappointed,'
said Lady Windermere. 'I have absolutely nothing to tell Sybil
to-morrow. No one cares about distant relatives nowadays. They
went out of fashion years ago. However, I suppose she had better
have a black silk by her; it always does for church, you know.
And now let us go to supper. They are sure to have eaten everything
up, but we may find some hot soup. Francois used to make excellent
soup once, but he is so agitated about politics at present, that
I never feel quite certain about him. I do wish General Boulanger
would keep quiet. Duchess, I am sure you are tired?'
'Not at all, dear Gladys,' answered
the Duchess, waddling towards the door. 'I have enjoyed myself
immensely, and the cheiropodist, I mean the cheiromantist, is
most interesting. Flora, where can my tortoise-shell fan be?
Oh, thank you, Sir Thomas, so much. And my lace shawl, Flora?
Oh, thank you, Sir Thomas, very kind, I'm sure'; and the worthy
creature finally managed to get downstairs without dropping her
scent-bottle more than twice.
All this time Lord Arthur Savile
had remained standing by the fireplace, with the same feeling
of dread over him, the same sickening sense of coming evil. He
smiled sadly at his sister, as she swept past him on Lord Plymdale's
arm, looking lovely in her pink brocade and pearls, and he hardly
heard Lady Windermere when she called to him to follow her. He
thought of Sybil Merton, and the idea that anything could come
between them made his eyes dim with tears.
Looking at him, one would have
said that Nemesis had stolen the shield of Pallas, and shown
him the Gorgon's head. He seemed turned to stone, and his face
was like marble in its melancholy. He had lived the delicate
and luxurious life of a young man of birth and fortune, a life
exquisite in its freedom from sordid care, its beautiful boyish
insouciance; and now for the first time he became conscious of
the terrible mystery of Destiny, of the awful meaning of Doom.
How mad and monstrous it all
seemed! Could it be that written on his hand, in characters that
he could not read himself, but that another could decipher, was
some fearful secret of sin, some blood- red sign of crime? Was
there no escape possible? Were we no better than chessmen, moved
by an unseen power, vessels the potter fashions at his fancy,
for honour or for shame? His reason revolted against it, and
yet he felt that some tragedy was hanging over him, and that
he had been suddenly called upon to bear an intolerable burden.
Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear
in tragedy or in comedy, whether they will suffer or make merry,
laugh or shed tears. But in real life it is different. Most men
and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no
qualifications. Our Guildensterns play Hamlet for us, and our
Hamlets have to jest like Prince Hal. The world is a stage, but
the play is badly cast.
Suddenly Mr. Podgers entered
the room. When he saw Lord Arthur he started, and his coarse,
fat face became a sort of greenish-yellow colour. The two men's
eyes met, and for a moment there was silence.
'The Duchess has left one of
her gloves here, Lord Arthur, and has asked me to bring it to
her,' said Mr. Podgers finally. 'Ah, I see it on the sofa! Good
'Mr. Podgers, I must insist on
your giving me a straightforward answer to a question I am going
to put to you.'
'Another time, Lord Arthur, but
the Duchess is anxious. I am afraid I must go.'
'You shall not go. The Duchess
is in no hurry.'
'Ladies should not be kept waiting,
Lord Arthur,' said Mr. Podgers, with his sickly smile. 'The fair
sex is apt to be impatient.'
Lord Arthur's finely-chiselled
lips curled in petulant disdain. The poor Duchess seemed to him
of very little importance at that moment. He walked across the
room to where Mr. Podgers was standing, and held his hand out.
'Tell me what you saw there,'
he said. 'Tell me the truth. I must know it. I am not a child.'
Mr. Podgers's eyes blinked behind
his gold-rimmed spectacles, and he moved uneasily from one foot
to the other, while his fingers played nervously with a flash
'What makes you think that I
saw anything in your hand, Lord Arthur, more than I told you?'
'I know you did, and I insist
on your telling me what it was. I will pay you. I will give you
a cheque for a hundred pounds.'
The green eyes flashed for a
moment, and then became dull again.
'Guineas?' said Mr. Podgers at
last, in a low voice.
'Certainly. I will send you a
cheque to-morrow. What is your club?'
'I have no club. That is to say,
not just at present. My address is -, but allow me to give you
my card'; and producing a bit of gilt-edge pasteboard from his
waistcoat pocket, Mr. Podgers handed it, with a low bow, to Lord
Arthur, who read on it,MR. SEPTIMUS R. PODGERS
103A WEST MOON STREET
'My hours are from ten to four,'
murmured Mr. Podgers mechanically, 'and I make a reduction for
'Be quick,' cried Lord Arthur,
looking very pale, and holding his hand out.
Mr. Podgers glanced nervously
round, and drew the heavy portiere across the door.
'It will take a little time,
Lord Arthur, you had better sit down.'
'Be quick, sir,' cried Lord Arthur
again, stamping his foot angrily on the polished floor.
Mr. Podgers smiled, drew from
his breast-pocket a small magnifying glass, and wiped it carefully
with his handkerchief
'I am quite ready,' he said.
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