Lady Pendleton: Dear me! Susana has a special treat for you today, dear readers. She’s been working long and hard to tell the story of a young girl called Helena who came to me from the 21st century seeking my help in finding the family from whose arms she was snatched when only a babe.
In this scene, Helena is recalling her consultation with the gypsy lady who offers to help her travel back to the past to discover the truth about her origins.
The sign painted on the window read “Genuine Gipsy Fortune Telling” in large red letters with “Palm Reading • Tarot Cards” in smaller print underneath with the bottom line proclaiming “Séances Scheduled at Your Convenience”. A mannequin dressed flamboyantly in a red peasant blouse and gold skirt stood in the window with outstretched arms, no doubt meant to lure the bystander inside. Although an attempt had been made to give her a gypsy appearance—black wig tied back under a bright red headscarf, and glittery gold dripping from every possible place—her expression was the typical bland stare associated with mannequins.
It was cheesy. The sort of place an educated person would never deign to enter. Certainly not Helena, who didn’t believe in psychics or fortune telling, let alone time travel. Was her coincidental meeting with Mrs. Herne simply a scheme to drum up business?
If so, she had been very, very good at it. Her dark eyes seemed to probe into Helena’s very soul, seeing things she could not possibly have known otherwise. A lost soul, she had proclaimed. Wrenched out of her time. Isolated and alone because her soul was out of sync.
“I have a friend who might be able to help you,” she had said cautiously. When asked what she meant, the woman had turned cagey.
“Come to my shop”—she pushed a card toward Helena—“and we can discuss it.”
Helena’s eyes narrowed. “Why not now? Here?” she asked, indicating the lively sandwich shop. “Why must I go to your shop?” She wanted to believe. Mrs. Herne’s words struck a nerve. She’d never fit in, no matter how much she’d tried. Perhaps…there was a reason for it. Something she could do about it. But…travel through time? That sort of thing happened only in science fiction. As Dr. McCoy explained in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: “Sure, you slingshot around the Sun, pick up enough speed—you’re in time warp. If you don’t, you’re fried.
But here she was, standing outside Mrs. Herne’s fortune-telling shop, gathering up the courage to go inside. Well, she’d come this far. Might as well go for broke. She stepped forward.
The foyer was papered in red damask sprinkled with gold medallions. On a table between two gold satin wingback chairs was an antique ouiji board. On the adjacent wall was a showcase with a magnificent crystal ball in the center and zodiac plates on the side.
But what really drew Helena’s attention was the familiar-looking Zoltar fortune-telling machine in the corner. The gold-turbaned gypsy male had a narrow black beard and a thick mustache that turned up at the ends like a villain’s. He wore a black leather vest over a gold shirt, hoop earrings, and his eyes seemed to be laughing at her. The case of the machine was of elaborately-carved wood painted in black and gold, and the front of the glass box said “Zoltar” in gold-outlined red at the top, and “speaks” on the bottom. His right hand hovered over a crystal ball, and the left seemed to beckon her to come closer. Now where had she seen that before?
“It was the movie Big,”
Mrs. Herne pushed aside some of the strands of colorful beads that obscured the interior of her shop as she approached Helena.
“They had one exactly like this, but mine is the original. I purchased it from Patty Astley herself when her husband refused to have it anywhere near his amphitheatre. She was a good friend of mine, was Patty. Quite the horsewoman, too. But then, Philip was an excellent teacher.”
Astley? Of Astley’s Amphitheatre? From upwards of two hundred years ago?
“How old are you, Mrs. Herne?”
She was tall and had a generous, but not zaftig, figure in her flowing crimson caftan. Her black hair was liberally streaked with gray, and her dusky face showed the beginnings of wrinkles. She certainly did not have the look of an aged woman.
Mrs. Herne threw back her head and laughed loudly.
“How old do you think I am?” she asked finally.
“Oh…well…forty-five?” Helena hedged, trying to be diplomatic. She actually figured the woman for about a decade older.
“Right you are, Miss Helena. I stopped aging on my fifty-fifth birthday.” She smiled at Helena’s startled reaction. “You were trying to be kind, of course. To a young person, fifty years seems a long time. In reality, fifty is the best age. You know yourself well by then, and aren’t always trying to become someone else. And you don’t take things so seriously. Life is meant to be enjoyed, after all.” She looked Helena directly in the eye. “After all, fifty is the new forty, or so they say.”
“Come inside, and sit for awhile, and I’ll fetch some tea.”
She was personable and kind, and her words carried the semblance of truth. The tea had long grown cold by the time Helena left the shop, carrying a round gray stone flecked with gold and a list of instructions—mostly preparations for the trip and suggestions for what to do when she arrived. Mrs. Herne’s clairvoyant power pointed to the year 1792 as her birth year, and it was decided that 1817 would be the most opportune time for her return.
“And my good friend Lady Pendleton will be there to assist you!” she had exclaimed. “How very fortunate that she is in Town for the Season this year!”
Helena wasn’t entirely certain who or what Lady Pendleton was, but then, she hadn’t quite figured out Mrs. Herne either. Was she a fool to trust either one of them? Perhaps, but it wasn’t like she had to jump off a cliff or anything. She only had to clasp the rock tightly in her hands and concentrate on thinking about where she wanted to travel to.
“But you must truly wish it,” Mrs. Herne cautioned. “Reflect on your desire to be reunited with your true family and live the life you were meant to live.”
And how to return if things didn’t work out in the 19th century?
“Oh, Agatha will help you. Lady Pendleton, that is. Or you can drop by my shop on Gracechurch Street. Only thing is, I was traveling quite a bit myself that year, so you may or may not find me there. You have a better chance with Lady Pendleton.”
And what if she couldn’t find Lady Pendleton?
“Oh well, you’re a bright girl. Not like the silly chits typical of the period. Keep your wits about you and learn from your surroundings. You’ll be fine.”
Would she? Helena recalled Claire Fraser being branded a witch in Outlander and wondered if they burned witches at the stake in that era. Oh no, they were dunking her, weren’t they, before Jamie came to the rescue.
Mrs. Herne was frowning. “That was nothing more than a book.”
It was eerie how easily the gypsy lady read her thoughts.
“If this is where you belong, you’ll adapt. In time.”
Helena didn’t like the sound of “if.”
But in the end, she couldn’t resist. The past was pulling at her, drawing her, and she finally let it take her into its mysterious lair.
Lady Pendleton: Yes, well, time travel does have that effect on people. I find it rather addictive, actually.
Oh, I wanted to tell you that Susana and I are having a wonderful time in Florida. It’s a bit cold today, but sunny and beautiful, and I was simply over the moon to catch my first glimpse of the baby sand hill cranes. Here are some photos of them. I almost got close enough to touch them! Aren’t they adorable?
A fun excerpt