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The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 20045

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Mrs. Merillia's accident made a very deep impression upon the Prophet's mind. He thought it over carefully, and desired to discuss it in all its bearings with Mrs. Fancy Quinglet, who had been his confidante for full thirty years. Mrs. Fancy-who had not been married-was no longer a pretty girl. Indeed it was possible that she had never, even in her heyday, been otherwise than moderately plain. Now, at the age of fifty-one and a half, she was a faithful creature with a thin, pendulous nose, a pale, hysteric eye, a tendency to cold in the head and chilblains in the autumn of the year, and a somewhat incoherent and occasionally frenzied turn of mind. Argument could never at any time have had much effect upon her nature, and as she grew towards maturity its power over her most markedly decreased. This fact was recognised by everybody, last of all by Mrs. Merillia, who was at length fully convinced of the existence of certain depths in her maid's peculiar character by the following circumstance.

Mrs. Merillia had a bandy-legged dachshund called Beau, whose name was for many years often affectionately, and quite correctly, pronounced by Fancy Quinglet. One day, however, she chanced to see it written upon paper-B.E.A.U.

"Whatever does that mean, ma'am?" she asked of Mrs. Merillia.

"Why, Beau, of course, Beau-the dog. What should it mean?"

"Bow?" cried Fancy. "Is he writ so?"

"Of course, silly girl. It is written Beau, and you can pronounce it as you would pronounce a bow of ribbon."

Fancy said no more, though it was easy to see that she was much shaken by this circumstance. But she could never afterwards be induced to utter her favourite's name. She was physically unable to speak the word so strangely, so almost impiously, spelt. This she declared with tears. Persuasion and argument were unavailing. Henceforth Beau was always called by her "the dog," and it was obvious that, had she been led out to the stake, she must have burned rather than save herself by a pronouncing of the combination of letters by which she had been so long deceived.

Such an inflexible mind had Mrs. Fancy, to whom the Prophet now applied himself with gestures almost Sinaic.

She was dressed in mouse-coloured grenadine, and was seated in a small chamber opening out of Mrs. Merillia's bedroom, engaged in what she called "plain tatting."

"Fancy," said the Prophet, entering and closing the door carefully, "you know me well."

"From the bottle, sir," she answered, darting the bone implements in and out.

"Have you ever thought-has it ever occurred to you-"

"I can't say it has, sir," Fancy replied, with the weak decision peculiar to her.

She was ever prone thus to answer questions before they were fully asked, or could be properly understood by her, and from such premature decisions as she hastened to give she could never afterwards be persuaded to retreat. Knowing this the Prophet said rapidly,-

"Fancy, if a man finds out that he is a prophet what ought he to do?"

The lady's-maid rattled her bones.

"Let it alone, sir," she answered. "Let it alone, Master Hennessey."

"Well, but what d'you mean by that?"

"What I say sir. I can't speak different, nor mean other."

"But can't you explain, Fancy?"

"Oh, Master Hennessey, the lives that have been wrecked, the homes that have been broke up by explainings!"

Her eye seemed suddenly lit from within by some fever of sad, worldly knowledge.

"Well, but-" the Prophet began.

"I know it, Master Hennessey, and I can't know other."

She sighed, and her gaze became fixed like that of a typhoid patient in a dream.

"Them that knows other let them declare it," she ejaculated. "I say again, as I did afore-the homes that have been broken up by explainings!"

She tatted. The Prophet bowed before her decision and left the apartment feeling rather hungry. Fancy Quinglet's crumbs were not always crumbs of comfort. He resolved to apply again to Mr. Malkiel, and this time to make the application in person. But before he did so he thought it right to tell Mrs. Merillia, who was still steeped in bandages, of his intention. He therefore went straight to her room from Fancy Quinglet's. Mrs. Merillia was lying upon a couch reading a Russian novel. A cup of tea stood beside her upon a table near a bowl of red and yellow tulips, a canary was singing in its cage amid a shower of bird-seed, and "the dog" lay stretched before the blazing fire upon a milk-white rug, over which a pale ray of winter sunshine fell. As the Prophet came in Mrs. Merillia glanced up.

"Hennessey," she said, "you are growin' to look like Lord Brandling, when he combined the Premiership with the Foreign Office and we had that dreadful complication with Iceland. My dear boy, you are corrugated with thought and care. What is the matter? My ankle is much better. You need not be anxious about me. Has Venus been playing you another jade's trick?"

The Prophet sat down and stroked Beau's sable back with his forefinger.

"I have scarcely looked at Venus since you were injured, grannie," he answered. "I have scarcely dared to."

"I'm glad to hear it. Since the days of Adonis she has always had a dangerous influence on young men. If you want to look at anybody, look at that pretty, sensible cousin of Robert Green's."

"Lady Enid. Yes, she is sensible. I believe she is in Hampshire staying with the Churchmores."

He looked calmer for a moment, but the corrugated expression quickly returned.

"Grannie," he said, "I think it my duty to make an effort to see Mr. Malkiel."

"The Almanac man. What do you want with him?"

She tapped one of her small, mittened hands over the other and slightly twisted her long and pointed nose.

"I want to learn his views on this strange faculty of prophecy. Has it ever occurred to you that among all our immense acquaintance we don't number a single prophet?"

"One can't know everybody, Hennessey. And I believe that prophets always spring from the lower classes. The line must be drawn somewhere even in these days."

"Why not draw it at millionaires then?"

"I should like to. Somethin' will have to be done. If the nobodies continue to go everywhere the very few somebodies that are left will soon go nowhere.

"Perhaps they do go nowhere. Perhaps that is why we have never met a prophet."

Mrs. Merillia looked up sharply, with her wide, cheerful mouth set awry in a shrewd smile that seemed to say "So ho!" She recognised a strange, new note of profound, though not arrogant, self-respect in her grandson.

"Prophets," Hennessey added more gently, "have always been inclined to dwell in the wilderness."

"But where can you find a wilderness in these days?" asked Mrs. Merillia, still smiling. "Even Hammersmith is becomin' quite a fashionable neighbourhood. And you say that the Almanac man lives in Shaftesbury Avenue, only half a minute from Piccadilly Circus."

"My dear grannie," he corrected her, "I said he received letters there. I don't know where he lives."

"How are you goin' to find him then?"

"I shall call this afternoon at eleven hundred Z."

"To see if he has run in for a postcard! And what sort of person do you expect him to be?"

"Something quite out of the common."

Mrs. Merillia screwed up her eyes doubtfully.

"I hope you won't be disappointed. How many editions have there been of the Almanac?"

"Seventy yearly editions."

"Then Malkiel must be a very old man."

"But this Mr. Malkiel is Malkiel the Second."

"One of a dynasty! That alters the case. Perhaps he's a young man about town. There are young men about town, I believe, who have addresses at clubs and libraries, and sleep on doorsteps, or in the Park. Well, Hennessey, I see you are getting fidgety. You had better be off. Buy me some roses for my room on your way home. I'm expectin' someone to have tea with the poor victim of prophecy this afternoon."

The Prophet kissed his grandmother, put on his overcoat and stepped into the square.

It was a bright, frosty, genial day, and he resolved to walk to Jellybrand's Library.

London was looking quite light-hearted in the dry, cold air, which set a bloom even upon the cheeks of the ambassadors who were about, and caused the butcher boys to appear like peonies. The crossing-sweepers swept nothing vigorously, and were rewarded with showers of pence from pedestrians delighting in the absence of mud. Crystal as some garden of an eternal city seemed the green Park, wrapped in its frosty mantle embroidered with sunbeams. Even the drivers of the "growlers" were moderately cheerful-a very rare occurrence-and the blind man of Piccadilly smiled as he roared along the highway, striking the feet of the charitable with the wand which was the emblem of his profession.

Only the Prophet was solemn on this delicious afternoon. People looked at him and thought that he must surely be the richest man of the town. His face was so sad.

He wound across the whirlpool, where the green image postures to the human streams that riot below it. He saw beneath their rooves of ostrich feathers the girls shake their long earrings above sweet violets and roses fainting with desire to be bought by country cousins.

"Where is eleven hundred Z, if you please?" he asked the Shaftesbury Avenue policeman.

"Jellybrand's sir? On the right between the cream shop and the engine warehouse, just opposite the place where they sell parrots, after that there patent medicine depot."

The Prophet bowed, thinking of the blessings of knowledge. In a moment he stood before the library and glanced at its dirty window. He saw several letters lying against the glass. One was addressed to "Miss Minerva Partridge." He stepped in, wondering what she was like.

Jellybrand's Library was a small, square room containing a letter rack, a newspaper stand, a bookcase and a counter. It was fitted up with letters, papers, books, and a big boy with a bulging head. The last-named stood b

ehind the counter, stroking his irregular profile with one hand, and throwing a box of J nibs into the air and catching it with the other. Upon the Prophet's entrance this youth obligingly dropped the nibs accidentally upon the floor, and arranged his sharp and anemic face in an expression of consumptive inquiry. The Prophet approached the counter softly, and allowed the sable with which his coat was trimmed to rest against it.

"Did a boy messenger call here a few days ago with a note for Mr. Malkiel?" he asked.

The young librarian assumed an attitude of vital suspicion and the expression of a lynx.

"For Malkiel the Second, sir?" he replied in a piercing soprano voice.

"Yes," said the Prophet. "A boy messenger with four medals. There was a crest on the envelope-an elephant rampant surrounded by a swarm of bees."

A dogged look of combined terror and resolution overspread the young librarian's countenance.

"There's been no elephant and no swarm of bees in here," he said with trembling curtness.

"You are sure you would have remembered the circumstance if there had been?"

"Rather! What do you think? We don't allow things of them sort in here, I can tell you."

The Prophet drew out half a sovereign, upon which a ray of sunshine immediately fell as if in benediction.

"Does Mr. Malkiel-?

"Malkiel the Second," interrupted the young librarian, whose pinkish eyes winked at the illumination of the gold.

"Malkiel the Second ever call here-in person?"

"In person?" said the young librarian, very suspiciously.


"I don't know about in person. He calls here."

"Ah," said the Prophet, recognising in the youth a literary sense that instinctively rejected superfluity. "He does call. May I ask when?"

"When he chooses," said the young librarian, and he winked again.

"Does he choose often?"

"He's got his day, like Miss Partridge and lots of 'em."

"I see. Is his day-by chance-a Thursday?"

It was a Thursday afternoon.

"I don't know about by chance," rejoined the young librarian, his literary sense again coming into play. "But it's-"

At this moment the library door opened, and a tall, thin, middle-aged man walked in sideways with his feet very much turned out to right and left of him.

"Any letters, Frederick Smith?" he said in a hollow voice, on reaching the counter.

"Two, Mr. Sagittarius, I believe," replied the young librarian, moving with respectful celerity towards the letter rack.

The Prophet started and looked eagerly at the newcomer. His eyes rested upon an individual whose face was comic in outline with a serious expression, and whose form suggested tragic farce dressed to represent commonplace, as seen at Margate and elsewhere. A top hat, a spotted collar, a pink shirt, a white satin tie, a chocolate brown frock coat, brown trousers and boots, and a black overcoat thrown open from top to bottom-these appurtenances, clerkly in their adherence to a certain convention, could not wholly disguise the emotional expression that seems sometimes to lurk in shape. The lines of Mr. Sagittarius defied their clothing. His shoulders gave the lie to the chocolate brown frock coat. His legs breathed defiance to the trousers that sheathed them. One could, in fancy, see the former shrugged in all the abandonment of third-act despair, behold the latter darting wildly for the cover afforded by a copper, a cupboard, or any other friendly refuge of those poor victims of ludicrous and terrific circumstance who are so sorely smitten and afflicted upon the funny stage.

Mr. Sagittarius, in fine, seemed a man dressed in a mask that was unable to deceive. His lean face was almost absurd in its irregularity, its high cheek-bones and deep depressions, its sharp nose, extensive mouth and nervous chin. But the pale blue eyes that were its soul shone plaintively beneath their shaggy, blonde eyebrows, and even an application of pomade almost hysterically lavish could not entirely conceal the curling gloom of the heavy, matted hair.

"Yes, two, Mr. Sagittarius," cried the young librarian, approaching from the rack.

The gentleman held out a hand covered with a yellow dogskin glove.

"Thank you, Frederick Smith," he said.

And he turned to leave the building. But the Prophet intercepted him.

"Excuse me," said the Prophet. "I beg your pardon, but-but-" he looked at the young librarian and accidentally let the half sovereign fall on the counter. It gave the true ring. "I believe I heard you mention-let drop the name Mr. Sagittarius."

"I don't know about let drop," began the youth in his usual revising manner. "But I-"

At this point the gentleman in question began to move rather hastily sideways towards the door. The Prophet followed him up and got before him near the letter rack, while the young librarian retrieved the half sovereign and bit it with his teeth.

"I really beg your pardon," said the Prophet, while Mr. Sagittarius stood still in the violent attitude of one determined to dodge so long as he has breath. "I am not at all in the habit of"-Mr. Sagittarius dodged-"of intruding upon strangers-" Mr. Sagittarius dodged again with such extraordinary abruptness and determination that he nearly caused the young librarian to swallow the Prophet's golden bribe. "I see you don't believe me," the Prophet continued, flushing pink but still holding his ground, and indeed trying to turn Mr. Sagittarius's flank by a strategic movement of almost military precision. "I see that plainly, but-" Mr. Sagittarius ducked to the left, endeavouring to cover the manoeuvre by an almost simultaneous and extremely passionate feint towards the Prophet's centre, which was immediately withdrawn in good order-"but your remark-arkable name, Saag-itt-ittarius, suggested to me that you are rea-eally the man I seek."

He had now got Mr. Sagittarius into a very awkward bit of country between the letter P. in the rack, under which reposed Miss Partridge's correspondence, and the newspaper bureau, with the counter immediately on his rear, and taking advantage of this circumstance, he continued rapidly:

"May I ask whether you recently received a letter-one moment!-envelope-crest-I only want to know if you have received-only-an elephant rampant-swarm of-of bees-"

"I have never received a rampant elephant and a swarm of bees," cried Mr. Sagittarius with every symptom of unbridled terror. "Help, Frederick Smith!"

"Right you are, Malkiel the Second!" cried the young librarian, hastily pocketing the half sovereign and making a feverish lunge at nothing in particular over the counter. "Right you are!"

"Malkiel the Second!" ejaculated the Prophet. "Then you are the man I seek."

Malkiel the Second-for it was indeed he-sank back against the counter in an attitude of abandoned prostration that would have made a fortune of a comic actor.

"I trusted to Jellybrand's," he said, drawing from his tail pocket a white handkerchief covered with a pattern of pink storks in flight. "I trusted to Jellybrand's and Jellybrand's has betrayed me. Oh, Frederick Smith!"

He put a stork to each eye. The young librarian assumed an injured air.

"It was the agitation did it, Mr. Sagittarius," he said. "If you hadn't a-kep' dodging I shouldn't have lost my memory."

And he looked avariciously at the Prophet, who smiled at him reassuringly and drew forth a card case.

"I feel sure, Mr. Sag-Malkiel-"

"Malkiel the Second, sir, is my name if it is betrayed by Jellybrand's," said that gentleman with sudden dignity. "There is no need of any mister."

"I beg your pardon," said the Prophet, handing his card. "That is my name and address. May I beg you to forgive my apparent anxiety to make your acquaintance, and implore you to grant me a few moments of private conversation on a matter of the utmost importance?"

Malkiel the Second read the card.

"Berkeley Square," he said. "The Berkeley Square?"

"Exactly, the Berkeley Square," said the Prophet, modestly.

"Not the one at Brixton Rise behind the Kimmins's mews?" said Malkiel the Second, suspiciously.

"Certainly not. The one near Grosvenor Square."

"That's better," said Malkiel, upon whom the Prophet's address had evidently made a good impression. "Kimmins's is no class at all. Had you come from there, I-but what may you want with me?"

The Prophet glanced significantly at the young librarian, who was leaning upon the counter in a tense, keyhole position, with his private ear turned somewhat ostentatiously towards the two speakers.

"I can tell you in an inner room," he murmured, in his most ingratiating manner.

"You're certain it's not Berkeley Square behind Kimmins's?" said Malkiel, with a last flicker of suspicion.

"Quite certain-quite."

"Frederick Smith," said Malkiel the Second, "since Jellybrand's has betrayed me Jellybrand's must abide the consequences. Show this gentleman and me to the parlour."

"Right, Mr. Sagittarius," replied the young librarian whose memory had again become excellent. "But Miss Minerva is coming at three-thirty."

"Has she bespoke the parlour, Frederick Smith?"

"Yes, Mr. Sagittarius."

"Then she can't have it. That's all. Jellybrand's must abide the full consequences of my betrayal. Go forward, Frederick Smith."

The young librarian went forward towards a door of deal and ground glass which he threw open with some ceremony.

"The parlour, gents," he said.

"After you, sir, after you," said Malkiel the Second, making a side step and bringing his feet together in the first position.

"No, no," rejoined the Prophet, gently drawing the sage to the front, and inserting him into the parlour in such an ingenious manner that he did not perceive the journey of a second half sovereign from the person of the Prophet to that of the young librarian, who thereafter closed the deal and ground glass door, and returned to the counter, whistling in an absent-minded manner, "I'm a Happy Millionaire from Colorado."

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