Fortune Telling: Death, the House of God and the French Revolution

Tarot Nameless arcane XIII

Tarot Nameless arcane XIII

I deleted this scene from the manuscript of Mistress of the Revolution even before it went to publishers. Why? It slowed down the pace of the novel at the beginning, and the foreshadowing of the French Revolution was too obvious.

I have no regrets, though I am fascinated by tarots and their symbolism. Note how one of the severed heads on the Death card here wears a crown. And these decks appeared around 1650, a century and a half before the Revolution…

A word about the context of this scene. Gabrielle, the narrator, is now fourteen. She is growing up in the family chateau of Fontfreyde under the guardianship of her elder brother, the Marquis de Castel, and the watchful eye of the cook Josephine.

Of course, the cards used by Josephine would have been those of the Tarot de Marseille, not the more recent decks familiar to most American and British readers. For a look at the original Tarot de Marseille, check the great multilingual site of Philippe Camouin, who prints and sells replicas of the original arcanes.

And yes, there remains a reference to this tarot reading in the final version of Mistress of the Revolution.

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I knew that Josephine owned a deck of tarot cards. When she was so minded and felt safe from my mother’s prying eye, she would tell the maids’ fortune. I pestered Josephine to read mine.

She laughed at my persistence. “What could a girl your age want to know about the future?”

I blushed. “Nothing in particular.”

“My pretty, if you want to know whom you’re going to marry, you should ask your brother, rather than listen to an old fool of a cook. Besides, if I were caught reading your fortune, your mother’d dismiss me in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. I don’t know that your whims are worth my place here.”

I kissed her, coaxed and pleaded until she yielded. She fetched her cards with a sigh, posted one of the scullery girls as a lookout at the door, and made me sit across from her at the big kitchen table, with my back to the fire. I was so entranced that I could hardly breathe. She made me shuffle the cards many times and spread them face down as a fan before me.

“The cards are called arcanes, or sometimes blades, ” she said. “There are twenty-two major ones. And also there are four suits, Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles. Each suit has a King, Queen, Knight and Page, and other cards from two to ten. Think well about yourself now, Gabrielle. Draw your first arcane. This one will represent you.”

It was the Queen of Wands, seated on her throne with a staff in her hand.

“Yes, of course,” said Josephine. “She’s full of life, gracious, generous. Men are drawn to her like flies to honey. You’ll never lack suitors, my pretty, and that’s better than most can claim. Now, the next one, which we’ll place to the left of the Queen, will be your love. Go ahead, close your eyes, think about him.”

I picked another card. It was a knight, riding a black horse, his sword drawn.

“Good God, the Knight of Swords! A fine suitor for you! He’s full of intelligence and energy. He speaks well; he commands attention wherever he goes. But he’s arrogant, ruthless. He spells doom for his enemies, and God knows he has many.” She pointed at the card. “See how he wields the sword of justice? He’ll show his foes no mercy, and receive none.”

Josephine looked pained. “How stupid of me to yield to you, little one. The cards can be tricky, they deceive us more often than not. Let’s stop this game.”

I pleaded that she had to continue since she had started, that it was wrong to end the reading on a bad omen without listening to all the cards had to say.

Tarot Devil XV

Tarot Devil XV

Josephine shook he head and continued. “Anyway, dear, you drew the Knight upside down. It means that he’ll lose his power over you, that the object of his desire will be denied. Or maybe he’ll be delayed. Things don’t look so bad after all.Now the next card will indicate the near future. Think long and well before choosing it. Put it to the right of the Queen.”

I picked the second card from the top of the deck, which I had been tempted to do from the beginning but had somehow avoided. As soon as I turned it over, I dropped it in disgust. It was Le Diable, the Devil. At his feet stood a man and a woman, both chained and naked, both with horns and tails.

Josephine put her hand on my arm. “Don’t fear, Gabrielle. The Devil sometimes means darkness of spirit and bondage, but he can also be vital, energetic. Put another card on top of him. That will explain things.”

I drew the Seven of Cups.

“Yes, that’s what I thought. Debauchery, drunkenness, neglect of health. Nothing worse. Enough on the Devil. Now be careful about the next card, because it’ll show the entire course of your life. It should go below the Queen.”

It was
Death, a skeleton wielding a scythe in a field of severed heads, hands and
feet. I turned away.

Tarot House of God Tower

Tarot House of God Tower

“The Nameless Arcane!” cried Josephine. “See how it’s the only card in the deck with just a number, the number XIII, written on it. For good reason. I dare not speak its name aloud.” She patted my hand. “Don’t be upset, Gabrielle, it isn’t always a bad omen. It’s the most powerful blade of all. It doesn’t mean real death, as fools believe, but it indicates great changes in destiny, the passage from the known to the unknown. Put another card on top of it.”

I drew La Maison-Dieu, the House of God, a tower toppled by lightning, debris and bodies falling all over.

Josephine frowned. “The House of God! The overthrow of the powerful. My goodness, you drew two great omens of change in a row.”

“Why is it called The House of God?” I asked in a shaky voice.

“The arcanes mean more than the pictures on them. The toppled tower represents upheaval, which is, like everything else in the world, the work of God. Now cover the House of God with another card.”

The next card represented a figure draped in black, its head bent, looking down at overturned cups.

“The Five of Cups: loss of loved ones, bereavement. Enough on the Nameless Arcane; nothing good seems to come out of it. Now pick your last card. It’ll be your destiny, the term of your voyage on earth. It goes above the Queen.”

The coarse figures printed on the cards, with their lurid reds, blues and yellows, seemed to be mocking me.

“I do not want to hear more, Josephine. Is it usual for someone to draw so many dark omens?”

Josephine came to sit next to me on the kitchen bench and put her arm around my shoulders.

“Don’t worry, dear. Who doesn’t go through times of sorrow? You’re pretty and good-natured, My Lord the Marquis loves you. He’ll always take care of you. So, tell me, what evil could befall you?”

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