Machado de Assis, The Fortune-Teller

This short story was originally published in 1884 under the title A Cartomante, and later included in the Várias Histórias in 1896. The translation was done in January 2020, and revised in the middle of 2023.

It is an observation which Hamlet makes to Horatio, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. This was the same explanation that the beautiful Rita gave to the boy Camilo, on a Friday in November, 1869, when he laughed at her for having gone, the previous day, to consult a fortune-teller; the difference is that she made it in other words.

“Go on then, laugh! This is just what men are like; they don’t believe in anything. Well, know that I went, and that she guessed the reason for the consultation before I even told her what it was! She was only just beginning to lay out the cards, when she said to me: “The lady is fond of someone…” I confessed it; she kept laying them out, placed them in different combinations; and, in the end, she declared to me that I was afraid you would forget me, but that it wasn’t true—”

“Well, she got that part wrong!” interrupted Camilo, laughing.

“Don’t say that, Camilo. If only you knew the state I’ve been in because of you. You know; I’ve told you so. Don’t laugh at me, don’t laugh…”

Camilo took her by the hands, and looked at her seriously and steadfastly. He swore that he loved her very much, that her fears seemed like those of a child; in any case, whenever she had any doubts, the best fortune-teller to consult was himself. Next, he reprehended her; he told her that it was imprudent to visit such houses. Vilela might know it—and then…

“And how should he know! I was very cautious when I went into the house.”

“Where is the house, exactly?”

“Nearby, on Guarda-Velha street. Nothing happened this time; don’t worry; I’m not an idiot.”

Camilo laughed again:

“Do you really believe in this sort of thing?” he asked.

It was then that Rita, without knowing that she was translating Hamlet into common language, said to him that there were many true and mysterious things in this world. If he did not believe it, let him be patient; but it was certain that the fortune-teller had rightly predicted everything. What more was there to say? The proof of it was that she now felt peaceful and satisfied.

I suppose that he was just then going to speak; but he restrained himself. He did not wish to tear away her illusions. He too, both as a child, and even afterwards, had been superstitious. There was a whole arsenal of frivolous beliefs which his mother had instilled in him, and which, at the age of twenty, had summarily disappeared. On the day when he let all this parasitic vegetation fall, and the trunk of Religion alone remained, he, inasmuch as he had received both teachings from his mother, at once involved them in the same doubt, and, not long after, in a system of universal negation. Camilo believed in nothing. Why? He could not say. He did not possess a single argument for it: he simply restricted his mind to denying everything. And yet my words are mistaken: for to deny is still to affirm; but he did not even formulate his incredulity. In the face of the Mysterious, he contented himself with shrugging his shoulders, and carried on walking.

They parted contentedly, he even more so than she. Rita was certain of being loved: Camilo not only enjoyed the firmness of her affection, but saw her trembling and taking risks on his account, running off to the fortune-tellers; and, however much he may have reprehended her for it, he could not help feeling flattered. Their meeting-house was on the old Barbonos street, where a woman was living who came from Rita’s province. Rita went off by Mangueiras street, in the direction of Botafogo, where she lived: Camilo left by Guarda-Velha street; looking out, as he travelled, for the house of the fortune-teller.

Vilela, Camilo, and Rita: three names, one adventure, and no explanation of their origins. Let us come to it. The two first were friends from infancy. Vilela followed the career of a magistrate. Against the wishes of his father, who had wanted to see him as a doctor, Camilo entered the bureaucracy; though after his father’s death, he had at first preferred to be nothing, until his mother had arranged a public position for him. At the beginning of 1869, Vilela returned out of the country, where he had married a beautiful but silly girl; abandoned his judicial position; and came to open a lawyer’s office. Camilo got a house for him near Botafogo, and went aboard to greet him on his arrival.

“Is this the gentleman?” exclaimed Rita, extending her hand. “You can’t imagine what a friend my husband is to you; he was always talking about you.”

Camilo and Vilela looked at each other with tenderness: they were true friends. Afterwards, Camilo privately confessed to himself that the wife of Vilela did not belie the letters of her husband. Truly, she was graceful, lively in her gestures, with warm eyes and a fine, inquisitive mouth. She was a little older than the others: she was thirty; Vilela twenty-nine; and Camilo twenty-six. The grave demeanour of Vilela, however, made him appear older than his wife; while Camilo was a child in both moral and in practical life. He was as deficient in the knowledge of action given by time, as he was deprived of those transparent spectacles of crystal, which nature places in the cradle of some to advance them in their years. He had neither experience, nor intuition.

The three became inseparable. With familiarity came intimacy. A little afterwards, the mother of Camilo died; and, in this disaster, (for such it certainly was,) the two others showed themselves great friends. Vilela took care of the burial, the church-services, and the estate and effects of the dead: Rita treated especially of the heart; and nobody could have done so better.

How it was that, from this time, they arrived at love, he never knew. The truth is that he liked to pass his hours at her side: she was his moral nurse,—almost a sister; but, chiefly, she was a woman, and she was beautiful. Odor di femmina, a woman’s scent: behold what he aspired for in her and about her, to incorporate it in himself. They read the same books; travelled to see plays, and went on walks together. Camilo taught her to play checkers and chess, and they played at nights,—she, badly;—he, to make himself agreeable, only a little less badly. So much for external things. Then there was the language of the body: the pertinacious eyes of Rita which so often sought his own, which consulted his eyes even before those of her husband; there were the cold hands, and unaccustomed attitudes. One day, on his birthday, Camilo received, from Vilela, an expensive cane for a present, and, from Rita, just a card with a commonplace greeting in pencil; and it was then that he could read his own heart: he could not tear his eyes away from the little note. They were common words; but there are sublime vulgarities—or, at least, delightful ones. The old chaise in the public square in which, for the first time, you travelled with the woman you loved, both of you wrapped together steadfastly, is worth the chariot of Apollo. Such is man; and such are the things of his life.

Camilo sincerely did wish to fly; but it was already out of his power. Rita, like a serpent, kept closing in upon him, enveloped him completely, broke his bones in a spasm, and dripped her venom in his mouth. He became dazed and subdued. Shame, fear, remorse, desire, all were mixed together in his mind; but the battle was short, and the victory delirious. Farewell, scruples! It was not long before the shoe was fitted to the foot; and then they went together on the road, arm in arm, treading lightly over grass and gravel, without suffering anything more than some regretful longings when they were absent from each other’s presence. The confidence and esteem of Vilela continued as they were before.

One day, however, Camilo received an anonymous letter which called him immoral and perfidious, and said that his adventure was known to everybody. Camilo was afraid; and, to divert suspicion, began to make his visits to Vilela less frequent. Vilela remarked to him upon these absences. Camilo answered that the reason was a young lad’s frivolous passion. Candour became the mother of Cunning: the absences continued, and the visits ceased entirely. It may be also that a little self-love entered into this mode of conduct,—an intention of reducing the kindness of the husband, in order to diminish the feeling of treachery in himself.

It was about this time that Rita, suspicious and fearful, ran to the fortune-teller to consult her about the true cause of Camilo’s behaviour. We have seen that the fortune-teller restored her confidence, and that the young man reprehended her for doing as she did. A number of weeks ran on. Camilo received two or three more anonymous letters which were so impassioned that they could not possibly be the admonition of virtue, but must surely have proceeded from the jealousy of some adversary. Such, at any rate, was the opinion of Rita, who, expressing herself in other words more ill-composed than these, formulated this thought:—that Virtue is indolent and miserly, and will take the trouble to expend neither time nor paper; while Interest alone is active and prodigal.

Certainly, this was no reason for Camilo to feel more easy. He feared that the anonymous party would make contact with Vilela; and then the catastrophe would follow without all hope of remedy. Rita agreed that this was possible.

“All right,” she said; “I’ll bring these envelopes home to compare the handwriting with any letters that turn up there. If it ever looks the same, I’ll just take the letter and rip it up.”

No such letter appeared; yet a little while after, Vilela started to seem sombre,—speaking little, as if he were mistrustful. Rita made haste to relate this to her lover, and they deliberated on the matter. Her opinion was that Camilo ought to return to their house, sound her husband out, and,—who knows?—perhaps he might even be admitted to hear some business-matter. Camilo disagreed; to make an appearance after so many months was to confirm the suspicion or denunciation. It was better to be cautious, sacrificing each other for some weeks. They exchanged means of communication in case of need, and parted in tears.

The day following, as he was at his department, Camilo received this note from Vilela: “Come to our house at once—at once; I must speak with you immediately.” It was after noon. Camilo presently departed. On the road, he observed to himself that it would have been more natural for Vilela to have called him to his office; why the house? All things indicated some matter of special importance; and, what was more, whether the perception was true or illusory, the message seemed to have been written with a trembling hand. He joined all these considerations with that of Rita’s news of the previous evening.

“Come to our house at once—at once; I must speak with you immediately,” he was repeating, with his eyes fixed on the paper.

In his mind’s eye, he saw the climax of a drama: Rita subjugated and tearful; Vilela indignant, seizing a pen, and writing the note, certain that he would run to his assistance, and waiting to kill him on his arrival. Camilo trembled, and was afraid: then forced a smile, for the idea of retreat was repugnant to him, and kept on his way. As he walked, it occurred to him to go home; perhaps he would find some message from Rita which would explain all? He found nothing—nothing at all. Coming back to the road, the idea of their being discovered appeared more likely with every consideration: it would be natural for an anonymous denunciation to be made by the same writer who had menaced him before; it might be that Vilela now knew everything. The very suspension of his visits without any apparent motive—indeed, without so much as the most futile of pretexts—would serve for virtual confirmation.

Camilo was restless and nervous. He did not read the note again: but its words were known by heart, before his very eyes, fixed there; or again,—what was still worse,—were murmured in his ear by the very voice of Vilela. “Come to our house at once—at once; I must speak with you immediately.” Spoken in this manner, with the man’s own voice, they bore a mysterious and threatening tone. “Come at once” for what? It was nearly one o’clock. His inward commotion was increasing with every passing minute. So vividly did he imagine what was about to take place, that he came to believe and see it. Yes; no doubt about it; he was afraid. He began to think of going armed, considering that, if nothing happened, there was nothing to lose, and that precaution was useful. Soon after he rejected the idea, annoyed with himself; and, quickening his pace, carried on, in the direction of Carioca Square, to take a tilbury. He arrived, got in, and ordered the coach to go at full trot.

“The sooner I get there the better,” he thought; “I can’t bear this any longer.”

But the very speed of the horse’s pace merely aggravated his turmoil. Time was flying by; and soon he would come face to face with Danger. Almost at the end of Guarda-Velha street, the tilbury had to stop: the road was obstructed by a cart which had fallen there. Camilo, in his heart, cherished this obstacle, and waited. Five minutes went by; and he perceived that, at his side, to the left, at the foot of the tilbury, lay the house of the fortune-teller whom Rita had consulted; and never had he so much desired to believe in the lessons of card-reading. He looked, and saw that its windows were shut when all others were open, and filled with people curious to observe the incident in the street. It might have been the very dwelling of indifferent Destiny.

Camilo lay back in the tilbury to block all things from view. The agitation he felt was great, extraordinary; and from the bottom of his moral stratum there emerged the phantoms of another time—the old follies—the ancient superstitions. The coachman proposed returning to the first by-street, and going by another way; he answered no, that he would wait. And then leaned forward to gaze upon the house… Then, he made a gesture of disbelief: it occurred to his mind to go and hear the fortune-teller, who was passing far, very far ahead of him with vast, grey wings: she disappeared, reappeared, and returned to vanish in his brain; but, soon after, moved her wings again, nearer and nearer, as she circled around him… In the road, some men were crying aloud as they pulled away the cart:

“There! Now! Go on; push! That’s it!”

The obstacle would soon be removed. Camilo shut his eyes, and tried to think on other things; but the voice of the husband kept whispering in his ear the words of the letter, “Come to our house at once, at once…”, and he saw the terrible contortions of the drama and he trembled. The house was looking at him. As if endowed with a life of their own, his legs longed to get out of the coach and enter… Camilo found himself before a long, opaque veil… he thought rapidly upon the inexplicable nature of so many things. The voice of his mother repeated to his mind a number of extraordinary occurrences; and the very phrase of the prince of Denmark echoed within him: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy…” What did he have to lose, if…?

He now found himself on the pavement, right next to the door; he asked the coachman to wait, quickly went into a corridor, and climbed a staircase. The light was scarce, the stairs worn away by the passage of feet, the banister sticky; but he neither saw nor sensed anything. He stumbled—then knocked. As nobody appeared, it occurred to him to leave: but the hour was late, curiosity whipped his blood, and his temples were beating violently; he returned to knock once—twice—thrice. He beheld a woman; it was the fortune-teller. Camilo said that he was there to consult her; she bid him enter. From here, they went up to an attic by a staircase even more dilapidated than the first, and darker still. At the top of the house, there stood a little room, badly lighted by a window that overlooked the back-roof. Worthless old furniture, shadowy walls, an air of poverty, rather enhanced than destroyed the prestige of the place.

The fortune-teller had him sit at the table, and sat opposite with her back against the window, so that the little light from outside fell full upon Camilo’s face. She opened a drawer and took out a pack of long, ragged cards. While she shuffled them, rapidly, she looked at him, not directly, but from beneath her eyes. She was a woman of forty years, Italian, dark and thin, with large eyes that bespoke dissimulation and cunning. She laid three cards on the table and said to him:

“Let me see, first of all, what it is that brings you here.—The gentleman has a great fear of something…”

Camilo, in amazement, made a gesture in the affirmative.

“And he wishes to know,” she continued, “whether a certain thing will happen to him…”

“To me and to her!” he exclaimed vividly.

At this, the fortune-teller did not smile; she only told him to wait. Hastily she seized the deck of cards, and shuffled them with her long, fine fingers, their nails neglected and unkempt. She shuffled them well; cut the pack once, twice, three times; then began to lay them out. Curious and anxious, Camilo kept his eyes on her.

“The cards tell me…”

Camilo leaned forward to drink in her words one by one. She declared to him that there was no reason to fear anything. Nothing would happen either to him or her: he, the third party, was ignorant of everything. Nevertheless, great caution was indispensable; for envy and resentment were boiling over. She spoke to him of the love that bound them, of the beauty of Rita… Camilo was struck with awe. The fortune-teller drew to a close, gathered up the cards, and locked them in a drawer.

“The lady has restored peace to my spirit,” he said, extending his hand over the table, and shaking that of the fortune-teller.

She arose, laughing.

“Off with you!” she said; “be off with you now, ragazzo innamorato…”

And, standing up, she touched him on the head with her index finger. Camilo shuddered as if it were the hand of the sibyl herself, and rose likewise. The fortune-teller went up to the chest of drawers, on which was a plate of raisins, helped herself to a cluster of them, and began to take and eat them—revealing two rows of teeth which belied the condition of her nails. Even in this common action, the woman had a peculiar way about her. Camilo, anxious to leave, could not tell how to pay; he did not know the price.

“Raisins cost money,” he said at last, taking out his wallet. “How many do you want to send for?”

“Ask your heart,” she answered.

Camilo took out a ten-milreis note and gave it to her. The eyes of the fortune-teller sparkled. Her usual price was two milreis.

“It is clear to me that the gentleman loves her very much… It is just as well; she loves him very much, too! Go, go in peace. Be careful, it’s dark on the stairs; don’t forget your hat…”

The fortune-teller had already put the note away in her pocket, and was now going downstairs with him, talking in a playful accent all the while. Camilo said goodbye below and descended the other staircase to the street, while the fortune-teller, happy with her payment, returned upstairs, humming a barcarole to herself. Camilo found the tilbury waiting for him; the road was clear. He got in and went at full trot.

Everything seemed better now; the world wore a new aspect; the heavens were clear, and men’s faces cheerful. He began to laugh at his fears, which he called childish: he recalled the language of Vilela’s letter, and saw that it was familiar and intimate. Where had he discovered the threat? He noticed, also, that it was urgent, and that he had done ill to delay so long; there might be some business-matter of the gravest urgency.

“Drive, drive quickly!” he was repeating to the coachman.

He contrived some excuse to explain his lateness to his friend; it seems that he even devised a plan to take advantage of the incident, in order to restore their ancient familiarity. At the same time, the words of the fortune-teller were echoing in his soul. She had rightly guessed the object of his visit, his present situation, the existence of a third party; why should she not foretell the rest? The unknown present, after all, is as mysterious as the future. It was thus that, gradually and continually, the boy’s old beliefs were rising to the surface, and Mystery was seizing hold of him with iron talons. Sometimes he wanted to laugh, and did laugh at himself with some embarrassment: but the woman; the cards; the dry and assertive language; the encouraging words, “Off with you now, ragazzo innamorato”; and, lastly, the slow and graceful barcarole at their parting; such were the recent elements which were in the process of forming, along with the ancient ones, a new and lively system of faith.

The truth is that his heart was joyful and impatient; thinking upon the happy hours of past times, as well as on those which had yet to come. As he was passing through Gloria street, Camilo looked out to the sea, laid his eyes upon the distance, where the water and the heavens join in an infinite embrace, and thus felt a sensation of the future which was long—long—interminable.

Not long after this, he arrived at Vilela’s house. He alighted, pushed open the iron gate, and entered. The house was silent. He ascended the six steps of stone, and hardly had he begun to knock when the door opened, and Vilela appeared.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to come sooner; what’s the matter?”

Vilela gave no answer; his features were distorted; he made a sign, and they went into an inner room. As he entered, Camilo could not suppress a cry of terror:—there upon the settee lay Rita, dead and bloody. Vilela took him by the throat, and, with three shots of a revolver, stretched him dead upon the floor.