I found a long and ultimately very disturbing account of Mlle Lenormand, written only a month after her death in the summer of 1843, and by someone who seems bent on portraying the great fortune-teller in the worst possible light for purposes of entertainment and as a warning against the perils of prophecy. It begins well enough.
It is said that out of the myriad thousands of esprits forts in Paris, but few could be named who have not at one epoch or another of their lives sought aid and counsel of Mademoiselle Lenormand.
Though quite a girl at the time of the first revolution, yet had she already acquired such celebrity in the art of divination, that many of the poor trembling marquises of the ancient regime flew to consult her upon their place of refuge, ere they dared take wing like frightened birds at the approach of night. . . . She used to say that Robespierre himself had trembled, when upon seeking her in disguise, unknown as he imagined, she had revealed to him her knowledge of his state and station. She would even laugh with malicious glee when telling how very pale his hideous countenance had turned, when at each shuffle which he gave the cards, the “Grand Pendu” [Hanged Man] would turn up, telling an awful tale of blood and violence.”
The author, a long-time resident of Paris, identified only by the initials “G.C.,” despite the disturbing stories he had witnessed (and recounted earlier in the article) of the great fallen low and the low rising just as predicted by Mlle Lenormand, sought her counsel one damp February day. But let’s let him tell the story.
It is now four years ago since I myself was led into the same folly, which I had ever been accustomed to condemn so much in others, and being in a sad dilemma. . . . I resolved to waive all responsibility, vis a vis de moi-meme, and go and consult Mademoiselle Lenormand. …
After waiting for nearly two hours while a storm raged outside and listening to a young woman and her elderly companion in the inner sanctum as they cried out against what must have been a fearful fate, our author entered the room of the celebre devineresse for his consultation:
She was, with astute knowledge of the part she had to play, seated in deep shadow, while the full light of the lamp was turned in the opposite direction, where stood the chair ready to receive the pale, eager consultant. This circumstance, and the sombre hue of her attire, certainly did contribute to throw a degree of mystery over her whole person, and it was some time before my eye, getting accustomed to the dim atmosphere, could succeed in tracing her outline with distinctness.
I was surprised to find in the powerful and dreaded adept, a person of short stature, and of immense bulk, doubtless the consequence of her sedentary life; and yet in spite of this, at the very first glance, it was easy to perceive that she was not a person of ordinary or vulgar aspect. Her face was round and flat, yet full of meaning, and there was a cunning restlessness in her bright blue eye, which seeming never to fix on any point, yet lost no one peculiarity of the ” consultant,” turning the blush of timidity, the stern gaze of defiance, or the smile of incredulity, equally to her own profit ere the divination began, and who, knowing well how very far events are ruled by temper and disposition, drew her own inferences therefrom, and foretold such wondrous possibilities, that timidity would listen all aghast, and incredulity disbelieve no longer.
On the table at which she sat were spread in awful mystery the Grand Jeu! Several worn and tattered volumes, looking dim and cabalistic enough, were scattered here and there, and from a red morocco case beamed and smiled, in matchless beauty, the miniature portrait of the Empress Josephine, the gift of the imperial lady herself. A chased gold cup given by the same royal hand stood near, destined to receive the gold pieces left there by her visitors, as the price of the fortune which she had awarded them. …
One end of the table was completely covered by piles of silver crowns displayed in long rows—rather ostentatiously methought. A large black cat was seated on the elbow of the chair, with blinking eyes and purring murmur, but to do the lady justice this was (saving the cards), the only token of witchcraft I could see around. …
She had already shuffled the cards and placed them before me, and begged me in a quick sharp tone to cut them with the left hand. She then again shuffled them, and while they passed rapidly through her fingers —for long habit had given her an agility I had never seen rivalled by the most keen card-playing old dowagers—she asked me the usual questions.
“What was my age—what animal I loved best, and what was my favourite flower?”
I observed that while she spoke her eyes were cast down, but while wailing for my answer she glanced at me with sidelong inquiry.
In nine cases out of ten the questions came upon the “consultant” unawares, and it was evident that this was the moment of hesitation upon which she reckoned for examining unobserved the expression and physiognomy of the credulous listener.
Her skill from long experience was such that it is verily believed she seldom or never erred in her judgment of the “consultant’s” station, character, or reasons for coming to consult her, and she was thus enabled to lay bare the past, the present, and the future, with such wonderful precision, that the thunderstruck victim would listen in open-mouthed astonishment. …
I shall never forget the impression conveyed by that deep voice as she spoke in low whispering words, rapid and monotonous, the decrees of Fate which stood revealed in the painted pictures she fingered with such marvellous dexterity.
It was a curious study to behold this woman play in mere sportive malice with the heart’s most tender sympathies, and I could imagine the thrilling effect which that whispered torrent of words might have upon the trembling maiden seeking her, perhaps by stealth, to confide all her misery to that willing ear, or ask counsel of the Powers of Darkness, when heaven and earth seemed to have abandoned her. And then the trembling suspense too with which the pale listener would await the sentence !—to her the decree of life or death— and yet murmured forth by those cold wrinkled lips, without change of tone or manner, without hurry or delay, merely as the sentence pronounced by the cards, and with which she herself, save as the interpreter, had nought to do. Of small import to her was it whether the decree brought weal or woe, bright dreams of happiness or grim visions of despair. …
The conference lasted for about an hour, during which time she ceased not speaking—her eyes half-closed, and bent upon the cards she held before her. I had the curiosity to lean across the table and gaze upon the set which she had lain down upon my entrance. They were sinister and hideous, well calculated to strike terror into the heart of the over-curious “consultant.” There lay in foul array the grim figure of the “Grand Pendu,” the blood-stained visage of the ” Supplice,” and the pale, livid face of the ” Suicide.” The cards were of about twice the dimensions of the ordinary pack—the cross-bones and skull formed the aces, and the hearts and diamonds were simulated by drops of blood! . . . The cards were ragged and worn by frequent use, until some of the figures were well-nigh obliterated.
She told me with much mildness, and with a degree of conviction which, if not real, was certainly admirably counterfeited, that this was the pack from which was drawn the measure of men’s lives, but added, it was a fearful search—that she never pressed it, but the “consultants” were ever eager to solve that one dread problem, either for themselves or for others near and dear. She said she advised me not to try, for they had already been shaken but a short time since; and told me that the extra charge was fifty francs. . . .
Choosing not to discover his ultimate fate, our author takes his leave.
It is at this point that the account assumes the character of a classic 19th century horror story, for G.C. finds on the street an elaborate gold snuff box left by the young woman and old lady whom he had heard sobbing as Mlle Lenormand told their fate. The box contains a portrait of a handsome young man. He endeavors to discover the names of these women and learns they are impoverished nobel women, the Marquise de Keradec and her grandchild, Solange. He seeks them out to return the snuff box. He finally finds them in a mean hovel, dead via some powder that they had burned on the coals, and, next to them, the following note written by the elder woman:
“It is the eleventh hour of the night!—he comes not—neither will he come. She who knows all things, foretold that if he came not now, we should behold him no more. He is gone before us doubtless, and it was her kindly manner of giving us this warning. Oh, what a fool was I to hope even for that single instant!
“He who first enters here, must search the chamber with great care; he will find a golden box, which, by some evil chance, I have mislaid since yesterday. Let him who finds it, remember that I have wanted food and raiment, and yet have kept that bauble through all the penury which has been mine, because it was all that remained to me of my gallant boy, whose brave spirit gushed forth in the cause of life and liberty amid the green valleys of our loved Bocage.
“It would have soothed my death now to have had his image on my bosom; but even this poor consolation is denied me. I myself have sought it until I have grown weary. My brain is troubled, and my sight is failing. Ha! the clock of the Carmelite tolling the half hour !—that single stroke!—it is like the summons to eternity !—it is well that I am ready—there—let me kneel and pray—ay, it is well to pray—for”
The pen had dropped from her hand, for there was a large blot upon the paper which hid the meaning of the concluding words. She had died while yet her prayer was on her lips. Let us hope that it was heard at the bar of heaven and not refused.
Our author gives his report to the authorities and, just as he is leaving, happens upon a clerk who recognizes the name, saying that a young man had just recently tried to find these women. The author finds the man and learns that he is the brother of the young woman. He had gone to Argentina to try to revive the family fortunes. Because some letters had miscarried and the women had moved, he had been unable to find his sister and grandmother. In fact, he had tried and, on account of the storm, had failed to get their address from the clerk at the exact hour that Mlle Lenormand had told the women: “The principles of good and evil are struggling at this very hour. If you see him not to-night you will behold him no more.” This presentiment has proved true because, in despair, they killed themselves that very night.
I am told that with the restlessness of woe, armed with my information concerning Mademoiselle Lenormand, he went, before his departure, to seek her, full of reproach and bitter accusation, declaring that it was doubtless her hard prophecy which had driven the weak and credulous mind of the marquise to despair.
The “devineresse” listened with composure and in silence, as if overcome by the justness of his reproaches. She then turned thoughtfully to the large volume wherein she inscribed at times her “Oracles,” and after remaining for a few moments buried in deep calculation therein, she raised her eyes flashing with delight, and exclaimed joyfully,
“The combination then was just. It was my first trial; and since that day I have not dared to use it, for it was a fearful risk. Why came you not before? Could I have known that it would have proved so correct as this, I might have made discoveries yet more important. Leave me now, I pray you, while the inspiration is yet upon me, that I may recall, if possible, the means by which I had arrived at such important ends. Blame not me, young man, I but read the book of fate as it was unfolded to my sight, nor sought to deceive with false words or to betray ; and,” she paused a moment, and added with a self-satisfied smile, “See you, I have met with my reward, for the combination cannot be denied!”
He concludes his account:
For myself I never again sought the sorceress, nor dabbled in her magic lore. The lesson had been too strong a one to pass unheeded by. I even resisted the invitation conveyed to me through a friend to visit her once more, for I thought of the Marquise de Keradec, and of the sweet Solange, and remembered that they both might yet have lived honoured and happy, had they but left to Providence the disposition of their fate, nor sought with rash and guilty mistrust of His divine mercy to forestal His all-wise decree.
Given the tone of the piece and the magazine in which the account appears, I can only hope that this story contains as much fiction as it does fact.
From The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist. 1843 (Part the Third). (London: Henry Colburn, Great Malborough St.).