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The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 17330

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

"And now, sir," said Malkiel the Second, pointing to a couple of cane chairs which, with the table, endeavoured, rather unsuccessfully, to furnish forth the parlour at Jellybrand's, "now sir, what do you want with me?"

As he spoke he threw his black overcoat wide open, seated himself on the edge of one of the chairs in a dignified attitude, and crossed his feet-which were not innocent of spats-one over the other.

The Prophet was resolved to dare all, and he, therefore, answered boldly,-

"Malkiel the Second, I wish to speak to you as one prophet to another."

At this remark Malkiel started violently, and darted a searching glance from beneath his blonde eyebrows at Hennessey.

"Do you live in the Berkeley Square, sir," he said, "and claim to be a prophet?"

"I do," said Hennessey, with modest determination.

Malkiel smiled, a long and wreathed smile that was full of luscious melancholy and tragic sweetness.

"The assumption seems rather ridiculous-forgive me," he exclaimed. "The Berkeley Square! Whatever would Madame say?"

"Madame?" said the Prophet, inquiringly.

"Madame Malkiel, or Madame Sagittarius, as she always passes."

"Your wife?"

"My honoured lady," said Malkiel, with pride. "More to me almost than any lunar guide or starry monitor. What, oh, what would she say to a prophet from the Berkeley Square?"

He burst into hollow laughter, shaking upon the cane chair till its very foundations seemed threatened as by an earthquake, and was obliged to apply the flight of storks to his eyes before he could in any degree recover his equanimity. At length he glanced up with tears rolling down his cheeks.

"Excuse me, sir," he said. "But what can you know of prophecy in such a fashionable neighbourhood, close to Grosvenor Square and within sight, as one may say, of Piccadilly? Oh, dear, oh, dear!"

"But really," said the Prophet, who had flushed red, but who still spoke with pleasant mildness, "what influence can neighbourhood have upon such a superterrestrial matter?"

"Did Isaiah reside in the Berkeley Square, sir?"

"I fancy not. Still-"

"I fancy not, too," rejoined Malkiel. "Nor Bernard Wilkins either, or any prophet that ever I heard of. Why, even Jesse Jones lives off Perkin's Road, Wandsworth Common, though he does keep a sitting-room in Berners Street just to see his clients in, and he is a very low-class person, even for a prophet. No, no, sir, Madame is quite right. She married me despite the damning-yes, I say, sir, the damning fact that I was a prophet-" here Malkiel the Second brought down one of the dogskin gloves with violence upon the rickety parlour table-"but before ever we went to the Registrar's she made me take a solemn oath. What was it, do you say?"

"Yes, I do," said Hennessey, leaning forward and gazing into Malkiel's long and excited face round which the heavy mat of pomaded hair vibrated.

"It was this, sir-to mix with no prophets so long as we both should live. Prophets, she truly said, are low-class, even dirty, persons. Their parties, their 'at homes' are shoddy. They live in fourth-rate neighbourhoods. They burn gas and sit on horsehair. Only in rare cases do they have any bathroom in their houses. Their influence would be bad for the children when they begin to grow up. How could Corona make her debut"-Malkiel pronounced it debbew-"in prophetic circles? How could she come out in Drakeman's Villas, Tooting, or dance with such young fellers as frequent Hagglin's Buildings, Clapham Rise? How could she do it, sir?"

"I don't know, I'm sure," gasped the Prophet.

"Nor I, sir, nor I," continued Malkiel, with unabated fervour. "And it's the same with Capricornus. My boy shall not be thrown in with prophets. Did Malkiel the First start the Almanac for that? Did he foster it till it went from the poor servant girl's attic into the gilded apartments of the aristocracy and lay even upon Royal tables for that? Did he, I say?"

"I haven't an idea," said the Prophet.

"He did not, sir. And I-I myself"-he arranged the diamond pin in his white satin tie with an almost imperial gesture-"have not followed upon the lines he laid down without imbibing, as I may truly say, the lofty spirit that guided him, the lofty social spirit, as Madame calls it. There have been other prophets, I know. There are other prophets. I do not attempt to deny it. But where else than here, sir"-the dogskin glove lay upon the breast of the chocolate brown frock coat-"where else than here will you find a prophet who hides his identity beneath an alias, who remains, as Madame always says, perdew, and who conducts his profession on honourable and business-like lines? Am I dressed like a prophet?" He suddenly brought his doubled fist down upon the Prophet's knee.

"No," cried Hennessey. "Certainly not!"

"Why, sir, how can I be when I tell you that Merriman & Saxster of Regent Street are my tailors, and have been since my first pair of trouserings? Do I bear myself prophetically? I think you will agree that I do not when you know that I am frequently mistaken for an outside broker-yes, sir, and that this has even happened upon the pier at Margate. You have seen my demeanour at Jellybrand's. You saw me come into the library. You saw my manner with Frederick Smith. Was it assuming? Did I lord it over the lad?"

"Certainly not."

"No. I might have been anybody, any ordinary person living in Grosvenor Place, or, like yourself, in the Berkeley Square. And so it ever is. Other prophets there are-possibly men of a certain ability even in that direction-but there is only one Malkiel, only one who attends strictly to business, who draws a good income from the stars, sir, and satisfies the public month in, month out, without making a fuss about it. Wait a few years, sir, only wait!"

"Certainly," said the Prophet. "I will."

"Wait till the children are grown up. Wait till Capricornus has got his Latin by heart and gone to Oxford. Then, and only then, you will know whether Malkiel the Second is the exception to the rule of prophets. Yes, and Madame shall know it, too. She trusted me, sir, as only a woman can. She knew I was a prophet and had a prophet for a father before me. And yet she trusted me. It was a daring thing to do. Many would call it foolhardy. Wouldn't they, sir?"

The dogskin glove was raised. The Prophet hastened to reply,-

"I daresay they would."

"But she was not afraid, and she shall have her reward. Corona shall never set foot in Drakeman's Villas, nor breathe the air of Hagglin's. I must have a glass of water, I must, sir, indeed."

He gasped heavily and was about to rise, when the Prophet said:

"Join me in a glass of wine."

"I should be delighted," Malkiel answered. "Delighted, I'm sure, but I doubt whether Jellybrand's-"

"Could not Frederick Smith go out and fetch us a-a pint bottle of champagne?" said the Prophet, playing a desperate card in the prophetic game.

An expression almost of joviality overspread the tragic farce of Malkiel's appearance.

"We'll see," he answered, opening the deal door. "Frederick Smith!"

"Here, Mr. Sagittarius," cried the soprano voice of the young librarian.

"Can you leave the library for a moment, Frederick Smith?"

The Prophet held up a sovereign over Malkiel the Second's narrow shoulder.

"Yes, Mr. Sagittarius, for half a mo!"

"Ah! Where is the nearest champagne, Frederick Smith?"

"The nearest-"

"Champagne, I said, Frederick Smith."

"I daresay I could get a dozen at Gillow's next the rabbit shop," replied the young librarian, thoughtfully.

The Prophet shuddered to the depths of his being, but he was now embarked upon his enterprise and must crowd all sail.

"Go to Gillow's," he exclaimed, with an assumption of feverish geniality, "and bring back a couple of rabbits-I mean bottles. They must be dry. You understand?"

The young librarian looked out of the window.

"Oh, I'll manage that, sir. It ain't raining," he replied carelessly.

The Prophet stifled a cry of horror as he pressed the sovereign into the young librarian's hand.

"You can keep the change," he whispered, adding in a tremulous voice, "Tell me-tell me frankly-do you think in your own mind that there will be any?"

"I don't know about in my own mind," rejoined the young librarian, drawing a tweed cap from some hidden recess beneath the counter. "But if you only want two bottles I expect there'll be ten bob over."

The Prophet turned as pale as ashes and had some difficulty in sustaining himself to the parlour, where he and Malkiel the Second sat down in silence to await the young librarian's

return. Frederick Smith came back in about five minutes, with an ostentatious-looking bottle smothered in gold leaf under each arm.

"There was four shillings apiece to pay, sir," he remarked to the Prophet as he placed them upon the table. "I got the 'our own make' brand with the 'creaming foam' upon the corks."

The Prophet bent his head. He was quite unable to speak, but he signed to the young librarian to open one of the bottles and pour its contents into the two tumblers of thick and rather dusty glass that Jellybrand's kept for its moments of conviviality. Malkiel the Second lifted the goblet to the window and eyed the beaded nectar with an air of almost rakish anticipation.

"Ready, sir?" he said, turning to the Prophet, who, with a trembling hand, followed his example.

"Quite-ready," said the Prophet, shutting his eyes.

"Then," rejoined Malkiel the Second in a formal voice, "here's luck!"

He held the tumbler to his lips, waiting for the Prophet's reply to give the signal for a unanimous swallowing of the priceless wine.

"Luck," echoed the Prophet in a faltering voice.

As he gradually recovered his faculties, he heard Malkiel the Second say, with an almost debauched accent,-

"That puts heart into a man. I shall give Gillows an order. Leave us, Frederick Smith, and remember that Miss Minerva is on no account to be let in here till this gentleman and I have finished the second bottle."

The Prophet could not resist a wild movement of protest, which was apparently taken by the young librarian as a passionate gesture of dismissal. For he left the room rapidly and closed the door with decision behind him.

"And now, sir, I am at your service," said Malkiel the Second, courteously. "Let me pour you another glass of wine."

The Prophet assented mechanically. It seemed strange to have to die so young, and with so many plans unfulfilled, but he felt that it was useless to struggle against destiny and he drank again. Then he heard a voice say,-

"And now, sir, I am all attention."

He looked up. He saw the parlour, the ground glass of the door, the tumblers and bottles on the table, the sharp features and strained, farcical eyes of Malkiel framed in the matted, curling hair. Then all was not over yet. There was something still in store for him. He sat up, pushed the creaming four-shilling foam out of his sight, turned to his interlocutor, and with a great effort collected himself.

"I want to consult you," he began, "about my strange powers."

Malkiel smiled with easy irony.

"Strange powers in Berkeley Square!" he ejaculated. "The Berkeley Square! But go on, sir. What are they?"

"Having been led to study the stars," continued the Prophet with more composure and growing earnestness, "I felt myself moved to make a prophecy."

"Weather forecast, I suppose," remarked Malkiel, laconically.

"How did you know that?"

"The easiest kind, sir, the number one beginner's prophecy. Capricornus used to tell Madame what the weather'd be as soon as he could talk. But go on, sir, go on, I beg."

The Prophet began to feel rather less like Isaiah, but he continued, with some determination,-

"If that had been all, I daresay I should have thought very little of the matter."

"No, you wouldn't sir. Who thinks their first baby a little one? Can you tell me that?"

The Prophet considered the question for a moment. Then he answered,-

"Perhaps you're right."

"Perhaps so," rejoined Malkiel, indulgently. "Well, sir, what was your next attempt-in the Berkeley Square?"

The Prophet's sensitive nature winced under the obvious irony of the interrogation, but either the "creaming foam" had rendered him desperate, or he was to some extent steeled against the satire by the awful self-respect which had invaded him since Mrs. Merillia's accident. In any case he answered firmly,-

"Malkiel the Second, in Berkeley Square I had a relation-an honoured grandmother."

"You've the better of me there, sir. My parents and Madame's are all in Brompton Cemetery. Well, sir, you'd got an honoured grandmother in the Berkeley Square. What of it?"

"She was naturally elderly."

"And you predicted her death and she passed over. Very natural too, sir. The number two beginner's prophecy. Why, Corona-"

But at this point the Prophet broke in.

"Excuse me," he said in a scandalised voice, "excuse me, Malkiel the Second, she did nothing of the kind. Whatever my faults may be-and they are many, I am aware-I-I-"

He was greatly moved.

"Take another sup of wine, sir. You need it," said Malkiel.

The Prophet mechanically drank once more, grasping the edge of the table for support in the endurance of the four-bob ecstasy.

"You prophesied it and she didn't pass over, sir," continued Malkiel, with unaffected sympathy. "I understand the blow. It's cruel hard when a prophecy goes wrong. Why, even Madame-"

But at this point the Prophet broke in.

"You are mistaken," he cried. "Utterly mistaken."

Malkiel the Second drew himself up with dignity.

"In that case I will say no more," he remarked, pursing up his lengthy mouth and assuming a cast-iron attitude.

The Prophet perceived his mistake.

"Forgive me," he exclaimed. "It is my fault."

"Oh, no, sir. Not at all," rejoined Malkiel, with icy formality. "Pray let the fault be mine."

"I will not indeed. But let me explain. My beloved grandmother still lives, although I cast her horoscope and-"

"Indeed! very remarkable!"

"I mean-not although-but I thought I would cast her horoscope. And I did so."

"In the square?" asked Malkiel, with quiet, but piercing, irony.

"Yes," said the Prophet, with sudden heat. "Why not?"

Malkiel smiled with an almost paternal pity, as of a thoughtful father gazing upon the quaint and inappropriate antics of his vacant child.

"Why not, sir-if you prefer it?" he rejoined. "Pray proceed."

The Prophet's face was flushed, either by the "creaming foam," or by irritation, or by both.

"Surely," he began, in a choking voice, "surely the stars are the same whether they are looked at from Berkeley Square or from-from-or from"-he sought passionately for a violent contrast-"from Newington Butts," he concluded triumphantly.

"I have not the pleasure to have ever observed my guides from the neighbourhood of the Butts," said Malkiel, serenely. "But pray proceed, sir. I am all attention. You cast your honoured grandmother's horoscope-in the Berkeley Square."

The Prophet seized his glass, but some remnants of his tattered self-control still clung to him, and he put it down without seeking further madness from its contents.

"I did," he said firmly, even obstinately. "And I discovered-I say discovered that she was going to have an accident while on an evening expedition-or jaunt as you might perhaps prefer to call it."

"I should certainly call it so-in the case of a lady who was an honoured grandmother," said Malkiel the Second in assent.

"Well, Malkiel the Second," continued the Prophet, recovering his composure as he approached his coup, "my grandmother did have an accident, as I foretold."

"Did she have it in the square, sir?" asked Malkiel.

"And what if she did?" cried the Prophet with considerable testiness.

He was beginning to conceive a perfect hatred of the admirable neighbourhood, which he had loved so well.

"I merely ask for information, sir."

"The accident did take place in the square certainly, and on the very night for which I predicted it."

Malkiel the Second looked very thoughtful, even morose. He poured out another glass of champagne, drank it slowly in sips, and when the glass was empty ran the forefinger of his right hand slowly round and round its edge.

"Can Madame be wrong?" he ejaculated at length, in a muffled voice of meditation. "Can Madame be wrong?"

The Prophet gazed at him with profound curiosity, fascinated by the circular movement of the yellow dogskin finger, and by the inward murmur-so acutely mental-that accompanied it.

"Madame?" whispered the Prophet, drawing his cane chair noiselessly forward.

"Ah!" rejoined Malkiel, gazing upon him with an eye whose pupil seemed suddenly dilated to a most preternatural size. "Can she have been wrong all these many years?"

"What-what about?" murmured the Prophet.

Malkiel the Second leaned his matted head in his hands and replied, as if to himself,-

"Can it be that a prophet should live in Berkeley Square-not Kimmins's"-here he raised his head, and raked his companion with a glance that was almost fierce in its fervour of inquiry-"not Kimmins's but-the Berkeley Square?"

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