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The sign in the window of the shabby brownstone building said simply Madame Karitska, Readings.
Actually Marina Karitska was a countess but this was of small regard to her and certainly she had never been a run-of-the-mill countess. She was first of all clairvoyant and, secondly, she had spent her childhood years in the Far East as a beggar; it had been her first occupation. During the intervening years she had become fabulously rich in Budapest, had lost her wealth in Antwerp, and was extremely poor in America but she had a saying, born of experience, that only the eternal things mattered.
Among clairvoyants it is common knowledge that to use such a gift for personal profit is to invite loss of the sixth sense. In all the years of her eventful life Madame Karitska had never accepted money for her readings, but some months ago--eking out a living as a milliner in Trafton--she had begun to have a series of dreams, all of them alike night after night. In these dreams she was walking along a street that was foreign to her, and inevitably she would come to a particular brownstone house and observe in the first-floor window a sign that read Madame Karitska, Readings. The brownstone was one of many on a shabby street, indistinguishable from the others except for the fact that its front door was painted a bright canary yellow.
After experiencing this dream for a number of consecutive nights Madame Karitska found herself--seemingly by chance--going out of her way on a Sunday stroll. And suddenly she discovered herself standing and staring at a particular brownstone house in a long row of such houses, all of them identical except that this one had abright yellow door. In the window to the left of the door hung a sign: APARTMENT FOR RENT.
Because this sort of thing had happened to her a few times before in her life Madame Karitska knew that her life was about to change again. She walked up the steps and tugged at an old-fashioned push-bell. A young man with a beard and a ring in one ear answered her summons. There were daubs of yellow and green paint across his jeans, and a freckle of alizarin crimson on the bridge of his nose. He was clearly astonished. "I only hung that sign in the window five minutes ago," he told her accusingly.
"Yes," she said. "May I see the apartment?"
There were two rooms, quite small but filled with light and ample enough of her hundreds of books, and there was a closet of a kitchen as well. It could all be rented for a sum less than what she paid for one room on the mediocre hotel in which she stayed.
"Of course the neighborhood's pretty lousy," the young man told her, for Marina Karitska continued to look like a countess through all the exigencies of life.
"In what way?" she asked with interest.
"It's a slum," he pointed out. "Mostly artists' lofts and lodgings."
"But quite safe for clients?"
"Clients?" he said in a startled voice.
"I shall be giving readings."
He looked relieved. "Oh--Christian Science. Yeah, the neighborhood's safe enough. The police station's just around the corner, you know. Down at the west end there's a lot of junkies but that's six blocks away. It's a straight neighborhood, just poor."
"Good--so am I," she told him crisply, and moved in two days later."
"And now we shall see," mused Madame Karitska when she had abandoned her milliner's job, scavenged lumber for bookcases, and unpacked her books. Her purse was flat but her serenity untouched. She had, after all, been much poorer in earlier days. Her parents had fled Russia when she was an infant, and since they did not know a great deal about money, having always had a vast amount of it, their silver lasted them only until they reached a wretched little town in the Urals where they were forced rather abruptly to learn what a deficiency of the commodity meant. Those members of the family who could work worked for a pittance. Those who could not begged. A title was useless but brains were not. By the time she was ten Marina Karitska had discovered a way to make paper flowers to sell in the bazaars at feast days, and by doing this she accumulated enough profit to move her family to Kabul, where they prospered and she became a student. In the years since then she had lost two husbands and a considerable fortune to wars and politics but she considered it merely the rounding of a circle. Poverty of circumstance did not imply impoverishment of spirit; by applying herself to life with diligence and scholarliness something would inevitably turn up.
What turned up on Eighth Street was at first not encouraging: she met rather too many foolish, lovesick women who saw her sign in the window and assumed her to be a common fortuneteller. But lately there had begun to be a few appointments by telephone, and serious ones, so that she began to feel that news of her existence was spreading beyond the neighborhood.
On this particular morning Madame Karitska had a nine-o'clock appointment that had been made by telephone the evening before. She was up at sunrise to meditate, after which she performed various yoga exercises, dressed, and had a meager breakfast. The knock on her door came promptly at nine.
"Good morning," she said, throwing open her door, and was at once enchanted by the prim, lovely young girl on her doorstep. "Come in, won't you? Do you like Turkish coffee or American? I've a pot of each on the stove."
The girl was plainly nervous but she brightened at Madame Karitska's warm welcome. "American, please."
No sense of adventure here, thought Madame Karitska; a pity. "Sit down, won't you?" she called, going to the tiny kitchen. "Preferably by the coffee table where I shall place the cups."
A moment later she was back, bearing a tray with carafe and cups. As the girl busied herself with sugar and milk, Madame Karitska frankly observed her. Beautiful but inhibited, she thought; frightened, but possibly of me. Very lonely. An odd young woman, odd because in spite of her beauty she had no awareness of its effect. Possibly men frightened her, possibly life itself. She would have to be very gentle with her. She said firmly, "I wonder if I might have something of yours to hold, I find it an excellent way to get acquainted. Something that you wear every day. A watch, a necklace, a ring."
The girl looked at her and Madame Karitska thought that if she were not so inhibited she would laugh. "What does that do?" the girl asked very politely.
"It is a matter of vibrations and tone," explained Madame Karitska forgivingly. "Whatever you wear take on the emotional tone of both your body and your thoughts. It's called psychometry. I'm not a fortuneteller," she added firmly, "I'm a psychic."
The authority in her voice ad its effect. "I wear this ring every day," the girl said, and slipped it from her finger and across the ornate coffee table.
"Thank you. Incidentally is there anything in particular that you want to know?"
The girl moved one hand in a curiously helpless gesture. "Oh, almost anything, I guess. Whether I should change jobs, for instance--"
Madame Karitska gave her a quick, shrewd glance. She had a strong feeling that the young woman suffered more from a general dissatisfaction with her life than from anything so specific as a job. Unlock her and she would begin living, she thought, but something was seriously blocking her.
Madame Karitska picked up the ring and was silent, holding it in the palm of her hand and closing her eyes to avoid distractions. Almost at once she jumped. Opening her eyes she said in astonishment. "But this is the ring of a woman who died by violence--by murder."
The young girl looked at her blankly.
"I get a vivid picture of a woman. A very happy woman in her late forties, I think, newly married--a second marriage, I feel. She has blond hair worn in--yes, in a sort of coronet. A braid wrapped around the head."
The girl's eyes widened. "But you're describing my mother."
"The ring is hers?"
"It was until a year ago."
"She is alive still?"
The girl shook her head. "No, she died thirteen months ago. Of a heart attack," she added dryly, "and in her sleep."
Madame Karitska did not comment. She handed back the ring. "I think we had better use something entirely your own. Frequently the impressions left by a former owner remain far stronger than those that follow. Have you something that has never belonged to anyone else?"
The girl's laugh was harsh. "I hope you do better with me than with my mother." She opened her purse. "I left my wrist watch at the apartment. What sort of thing can I give you instead-my wallet?"
"That will do," said Madame Karitska, and accepted a worn alligator wallet. "You've not finished your coffee," she said gently. "Let me concentrate a moment on this." After a pause she said, "You grew up--I see the state of Massachusetts, is this not right? A gray house with white shutters and a sundial in the backyard . . . A very old sundial set on a cement foundation."
The girl's eyes widened. "That's true."
Madame Karitska's eyes turned remote. "And you are--" She stopped as she felt a chill run down her spine. "Is there a letter in this wallet?" she asked. "Or something--a memo--written by another person?"
The girl said in an astonished voice, "Why, yes, there's a letter. I keep it there."
Madame Karitska looked at the girl. She said quietly, "I don't know who the letter is from but I must tell you I don't trust the person that wrote it." She felt suddenly very alarmed. "You are surrounded by violence, do you know that? Have you been aware of it?"
The girl had gone white. She said in a primly angry voice, "I think you're quite mad. That letter is from a very dear person, the only person left in the whole world whom I trust. How dare you say he's not to be trusted!"
Madame Karitska looked deeply into her eyes. She said softly, "If you continue to believe this then you may find yourself in a difficult situation. I get a picture of a person whose charm--and there is great charm--conceals very disturbed emotions. This person is motivated by a deeply destructive--"
The girl put down her coffee cup and stood up. She said angrily, "You don't know what you're talking about, I'm sorry I even came, I--"
"But you did come," pointed out Madame Karitska calmly.
The girl turned scarlet.
"You came," said Madame Karitska, "because at some level deep within you there is awareness of something very wrong. Think about this, it is all I ask of you, for why should my words disturb you if you are so very certain I am in error? No, no, I will not accept money, this has been uncomfortable for me as well. You think I like to upset people?"
"You've not upset me at all," the girl said furiously, and picked up her purse.
Madame Karitska reached out and caught the girl's free hand. She turned it, palm up, and glanced at it, then holding it quivering for a moment in hers she said very gently, "You do not know me, I do not know you, is this not right? What could I want from you? What have I taken from you except a few minutes of your time? Consider me only a stranger who warns you--even a fool--but allow yourself to think carefully." She released her hand and stood up. "If you do not," she said, "grave harm may come to you. You trust too easily."
The girl looked at her, started to say something, and then flung herself instead toward the door. Opening it she said over her shoulder in a choked voice, "One of the girls at the office said you were great, just great." She was like a child who has been cheated as she said, "Good-by!"
When the door had closed behind her Madame Karitska stood silent, her eyes thoughtful, and then with a sigh she picked up the empty cups and carried them into the kitchen.
Copyright 1986 by Dorothy Gilman