The Diviner’s Club
Paul clutches the velvety smooth white card in his hand, marvelling at how a thick piece of paper could be the key to his future. He traces a thumb over the gold embossed script and reads for the thousandth time:
The Diviner’s Club requests the presence of
Master Paul Kent
on Saturday evening, the tenth of November,
eighteen eighty-eight at eight o’clock.
16 Cheapside, London, England.
Minutes after they’d left Eton’s grounds, Samuel, in charge of everything since they were thirteen, made Paul change from his King’s Scholar robes into a costume he’d nicked from the playhouse cupboards. “Wouldn’t want to look like a couple of toffs, would we?” The wool itched against the skin at Paul’s throat and wrists. And deep inside he knew he wasn’t a toff to begin with, not even close. He’d needled Samuel for almost the entire carriage ride from Eton to London. Seven hours of begging and pleading, as Samuel laughed and changed the subject.
“We’ve three minutes until the doors open,” Samuel says, tucking his pocket watch beneath a poorly patched overcoat from a production of Othello. The coat would stand out on anyone else, but it hangs on Samuel’s impeccable frame. The watch costs almost as much as Paul’s father makes in a year. “What would the birthday chap like to do in the meantime?”
Paul stands in London, in front of number 16 on his sixteenth birthday, and he remains still and silent. He presses his lips tightly together. Carts and horses jostle each other in the overcrowded streets behind him, children and cats race down alleyways, and smoke rises up from chimneys. Paul likens his reaction to an over stimulated cat, not knowing where to look next. The stillness is broken as he fiddles with the baker boy’s brim. Pulls it down on his brow, pushes it up. Down. Up. Down. Samuel swats his nervous hand from touching the scratchy fabric again.
“I’d like very much to know what this card opens for one night only.”
Samuel laughs a full-throated joyful sound. “Telling would spoil the surprise.”
“In the very least,” Paul says, the fear hard to disguise in his voice, “tell me what’s expected of me.”
“You’re a clever lad. I’m certain you’ve worked out what goes on behind these doors.” Paul hadn’t figured out much beyond the obvious. He jumps a bit when Samuel raps his knuckles against the heavy oak door to their left. “Once we’re inside, you simply pick a method of divination that suits your fancy, and voilà, the night belongs to you.”
Somewhere a cathedral bell rings out the hour. Samuel’s eyes widen in excitement. A man exits a side door to light the gas lamps on either side of the entrance. Paul watches him, turning to find a long queue of finely dressed men and women. They laugh and return to conversations in whispered tones. It might be Cheapside, but this club rarely caters to the likes of him. He presses the card against his breastbone, letting the beats of his heart reverberate through his hand.
The doors open and the boys are ushered inside a low-lit antechamber. The walls are a glossy dark mahogany. There’s no furniture. One lone Persian rug decorates the floor. A woman wearing an expensive string of pearls at her throat and a midnight blue gown takes their cards.
“Lord Wadsworth,” she says, admiring Samuel’s high cheekbones and aquiline nose. “The Diviner’s Club is honoured with your patronage.”
“Nelly, darling!” Samuel answers, using her Christian name in such a familiar way it causes Paul to feel the heat of a blush creep up past his collar. He whispers loud enough for them both to hear, “No titles tonight. I’m Samuel and this is Paul.”
Paul holds out his hand to take Nelly’s. He brushes his lips across her knuckles, and she giggles in delight, the pearls bob and catch the flicker of candlelight. His well-worn shoes scuff across the wooden floorboards as they’re led past a thick velvet black curtain and through another set of doors.
A man with an eyeglass and a cigar closes the doors behind him. “Welcome, Lord Wadsworth and Master Kent to the Diviner’s Club.” The hand with the cigar makes a wide sweeping motion.
The room Paul finds himself in is enormous. The panelled ceiling is at least two stories above him. Each tile decorated with fleur-de-lis more reminiscent of the French than the English. The chandelier in the centre is the largest Paul has ever seen. It takes his breath away. At the far end of the room is a stage filled with dancing girls in bright dresses. The accompanying orchestra plays to the side of the stage. Numerous round tables decorated with vases of chrysanthemums and candles are set in the middle of the room.
Samuel, his eyes wide with excitement, grabs Paul’s hand and slides a handful of coins into his palm. “To pay the diviner.”
Paul wants to shake his head and decline, but Samuel has already spun away to walk along the perimeter. Paul finds more coins in his hand than he’s ever earned himself. The heat at his neck reaches up to his cheeks. He pockets the shillings all the same and follows Samuel. Along the walls are long tables, squat tables, curtains — behind which Paul can only guess at — a sword swallower, and a woman in a gilded cage among others.
Some of the tables have placards that announce the diviner’s particular gift in Greek. Paul translates them in his head to read: myomancy, phyliomancy, chaomancy, taromancy, etc. Paul circuits the room twice before it becomes too crowded. The thickest groups of people surround the oddity acts like the torch juggler and the tiny Chinese contortionist twins. One of the curtained sections above all the rest keeps luring him back. The placard reads “haruspicy,” an unfamiliar — yet exciting — word.
Paul rolls it around on his tongue before parting the curtain to step inside the small space. Immediately, he’s hit by the odour of wood chips and incense. Underneath is animal urine and coppery blood. Rows of cages, stacked one upon the other, hold a number of small rodents. One of the wheels squeaks as it turns. The animals are in constant motion: eating, nesting, and trying to escape.
“Welcome, sir, to my humble booth.” Paul’s taken back by the man that greets him. The man’s hair is slicked back into a stringy ponytail. He wears thick spectacles that magnify his close-set eyes. And when he speaks, Paul can’t help but notice that he’s missing at least two of his upper teeth.
Paul’s tutors would be proud when he reaches across the table without fear in his voice. “Paul Kent,” he says, offering his hand.
“Ah, Master Kent.” The man lifts his own leather-gloved hand and limply shakes Paul’s hand before releasing it. “Me name’s Reginald.”
The hairs at the back of Paul’s neck rise in response. He second-guesses his reasons for entering this curtained area. Reginald sits, puts his elbows on the tiny table, and folds his hands under his chin. Paul searches for a chair before finding a folded wooden one propped up against the metal pole that holds part of the curtain. He, too, sits, keeping his back straight and his hands in his lap. Dancing feet, cheers, cigar smoke, and laughter floats over the ceiling-free booth.
“Got a billy on yah?”
“Beg your pardon, a what?”
“Forget yah toffs doesn’t speak the lower tongue.” Reginald laughs. Paul’s about to tell him that he’s not one of these “toffs,” but then Reginald says, “A handkerchief.”
“Oh.” He fumbles in his jacket, searching for the handkerchief his mother gave him before he left the house three years ago, not to return since. One of the shillings flies from his pocket, bounces off the table, and spins on the polished wood floor.
Reginald stomps his foot on the coin. “Forget it, mate. I’ll use one of mine. Yah’ll pay me handsomely enough.” He slides his foot towards Paul and reveals the coin beneath.
Paul reaches a hand down to collect the coin, knowing there are several more in his pocket, unsure how many he should give this man, or what’s about to happen. Reginald busies himself with laying out a tattered, but quite clean, handkerchief on the table so that one of the corners points towards himself and one towards Paul. He smooths the material; his gloved hands running evenly against the fabric.
“Now, what you need to do is pick one of these blighters behind me.” He indicates the cages with a thumb. “Carefuls how you pick. Yar choice is as important as what it’ll tell us.”
Paul stands and steps closer to the cages. Some hold tiny multi-coloured mice. Others hold noisy guinea pigs. And others still contain sleek rats of all colours from common brown to pure white. He eyes each cage carefully before deciding on a black rat with red rimmed irises.
“That’s a cokum, that is.” Reginald opens the cage and grabs the rat. He holds the animal up to Paul’s face. It takes everything Paul’s been taught not to reel away from the long whiskers and sharp claws.
“Wat yah wanna know?”
Paul steps back and reseats himself, using the motion as a distraction. Can he say it out loud? Reginald peers at him from behind the mason jar-thick glasses.
“The future,” he sputters. “I want to know my future.”
Reginald grins his toothless grin. “Rather broad question. Be more specific. Future in love, money, or … ?”
“Will I always feel so empty inside?” There, he’d asked it. Reginald considers the question.
A weight lifts from Paul’s shoulders, and then crashes back down as he witnesses Reginald slash the rat’s belly from chest to groin. The rat squeals in terror causing the other rodents to become agitated in their cages. Bright red blood like summer rose petals splashes the white handkerchief. Specks of warmth hit Paul’s cheek. He’s too stunned to wipe them away.
The rat’s entrails are pulled, pink and steaming, from its body. Paul watches, horrified, as the rat shudders and dies before him. His insides churn and threaten to explode. Before he can cry out or vomit, Paul’s affixed to his chair, waiting for an answer.
Reginald pokes a gloved finger here. Nudges a purple organ there. He hums a tune Paul almost recognizes as a lullaby under his breath. After what feels like a lifetime, Paul lets out a breath and Reginald begins his divination.
“Yer emptiness stems from family. Yah feel lost in yer new settings, though they be not that new. The key to yer future’s found in the 4th Earl of Hemlock, Lord Wadsworth.”
Paul shakes his head. “But what does that mean?”
“It means what it means.”
Paul waits for Reginald to say something more. The man cleans his tiny blade on the handkerchief. He wraps it around the dead rat and ties the corners together. Paul waits longer, desperate for a clearer answer that justifies the rat’s untimely end. When nothing more is spoken and the corpse tucked into a box, Paul places the handful of shillings on the table and exits the booth.
The light and noise are like a slap across his face. He’s aware of a strong desire to find Samuel and leave as quickly as possible. The stain of the rat’s death sits heavy on his chest. When he finds Samuel whispering into one of the dancers’ ears, he waits politely for his friend to finish flirting. Samuel runs a hand down the flesh of the girl’s arm before turning around. Paul doesn’t know how such a bright, yet spoiled, friend could possibly be the key to his future.
“There you are!” Samuel drops all pretence with the girl and walks away from her without a word. “Did you have your tea leaves read, or maybe your cards?”
Paul mouths the word, “No,” and can’t find his voice as Samuel natters on about the three different divinations he received. Paul doesn’t stop Samuel’s hand from reaching up and wiping the rat’s blood from his face with a thumb. Instead, his stomach twists at the touch of exposed flesh. Reginald’s divination snaps into focus.
He whispers, only loud enough for himself to hear, “You’re my future.”
A/N: This post was horrifically late due to illness and then serious illness. I’m on the slow-mend. Emphasis on slow. 😀
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Audrey. Check out Julie’s answer to this prompt next Monday.