This was my very first attempt at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) way back in November 2006. I only managed 25,537 words in the month, half the number a NaNoWriMo winner writes! The novel was great fun, though; deliberately written in the style of Wilkie Collins, I'd only ever be able to publish it if I could travel back in time, but I'm proud of it nonetheless. This was the opening of the book.
So you wish to know what she asked me, Sir? I confess, I am affronted. Which other professional would you ask so impertinently, and be so arrogantly certain of a reply? Which trusted doctor or member of the clergy would give you an answer and betray such a confidence?
Stay! I am neither doctor nor clergyman, though I could be both if you were rich and wished. I am anything to those who wish and can pay. Give me silver in my hand, and I'll tell you what she asked me. What, are you surprised now? No, Sir, it is your own heart you should search and reprimand! What am I to you? And what was I to her? Humble and low, providing a service for your money, that's all. Why deny it? Your conscience, as a gentleman, should be quaking; mine is clear. Reserve your shocked expression for yourself and your own desires and actions. If your pride allows you, you shall hear what she asked me.
(I see I have touched a nerve. His pride and doubt and disgust at me are making playthings of his face. But he will stay. That is my business; I am like Shakespeare's fool, allowed by maligned status to speak the truth and live, hated but untouched. There: his hand strays to his pocket. I live on the shillings taken from those whom I have persuaded thus far.)
Why, she asked the same question they all ask, Sir. Male and female, high and low life, young and old, tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief! Do you draw near it now?
(The question I hear daily, nightly, whispering in the hearts of men and women. They are taught to ask it from the moment they are born. The Bible teaches them to ask it. Does it not say that he made them male and female? Does it not say that it was not good for the man to be alone? Creation teaches it, the rivers teach it running to the seas, the whole globe spins to the question she asked me.)
Did you expect me to speak plain, Sir? That is not my art. The soothsayers never spoke plain. The oracle never spoke plain. I see that although you ask, you are afraid to discover. You need not fear, however. It is not the question she asked that makes you tremble. It is the answer I gave, and you have not yet requested knowledge of that. It is a brave and bold heart that would ask that question.
(There! Now I have him. An appeal to his courage has left him defenceless. He will stay; he will ask; he has braced himself for the knowledge to destroy him, the noble soul. He does not see that it already destroys him, from within. The story is in his possession, not mine. For what do these people know, upon leaving me, that they did not know upon seeking me? Knowledge is only the worm that I have drawn out, like a skilled surgeon, and dangled before them to show them what was hidden, curled up inside their bodies and doing its subtle work.)
You are very generous, Sir, with your gifts. I will be as generous with my replies. She asked me whom she would marry.
(Did I say it was the question they all ask? It is, indeed, nearly the most frequent. There is only one other question above it. Girls ask whom they will marry, and men ask when they will die. But the two are in essence the same question; and it is equally unwise to know the answer to either. Wisdom, however, is not good for business.)
I do not know the answer directly, Sir, that is not within my power. It is something only she could see. I told her the way to find out, since that is what she paid me to do. I can see that I am making you afraid again, and I do not blame you; even I feared when I saw her eyes, but my business is to foresee the future, not to alter it. She was given what she paid for.
(I told her, at first, what I tell them all. I read her palm and her cards, I gave enchantments and told stories. But she returned.)
Turn away that angry look from me. I am not deserving of it. I have done my job and served those who paid me. Do you suspect that I wronged her? That I am not as I seem? No, I am not as I seem, to you. To the next man I will not be as I seem to you now. I am changeable. I am all things to all people, it is necessary for my art that it should be that way. To you I speak as a gentleman, because you desired information and you asked politely. To those who are paying for witchery I speak low and mystical, to romantics I speak with an accent and to tourists I speak as a traveller from myriad countries. You understand that these are tools of my craft, secrets of my trade and nothing more. Dissembling? Only to those with expectations. I am what people expect. My business is to become what people want. But I do not tell lies to make mischief. Where would be the joy for me in that?
No, Sir, I did not deceive her. There was my great error. She came as a free soul, without expectations and believing all was lost. And she returned. Without confidante or chaperone, she took me into her confidence and made a sister of me, viewing me as she did without the barriers or hindrances that modern views provide as a safeguard. While she was still bringing me her pennies, she heard what people pay to hear. But when she became my friend, I mistook. I told her that which makes all men tremble. I speak of the truth, Sir. She was not ready to hear it; and no more are you.