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   Chapter 4 THE SECRET WATERS OF THE RIVER MOUSE

The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 22017

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


To this question the Prophet could offer no answer other than a bodily one. He silently presented himself to the gaze of Malkiel, instinctively squaring his shoulders, opening out his chest, and expanding his nostrils in an effort to fill as large a space in the atmosphere of the parlour as possible. And Malkiel continued to regard him with the staring eyes of one whose mind is seething with strange, upheaving thoughts and alarming apprehensions. Mutely the Prophet swelled and mutely Malkiel observed him swell, till a point was reached from which further progress-at least on the Prophet's part-was impossible. The Prophet was now as big as the structure of his frame permitted him to be, and apparently Malkiel realised the fact, for he suddenly dropped his eyes and exclaimed,-

"This matter must be threshed out thoroughly, Madame herself would wish it so."

He paused, drew his chair nearer to the Prophet's, took off a glove and continued,-

"Sir, you may be a prophet. You may have prophesied correctly in the Berkeley Square. But if you are, and if you have, remember this-that you have proved the self-sacrifice, the privation, the denial, the subterfuge, the mask, and the position of Sagittarius Lodge in its own grounds beside the River Mouse at Crampton St. Peter, N.-N., I said, sir-totally and entirely unnecessary. I will go further, sir, and I will say more. You have not only done that. You have also proved the sacred instinct of a woman, a respectable married woman-such as we must all reverence-false and deceived. Remember this, sir, remember all this, then search yourself thoroughly and say whether what you have told me is strictly true."

"I assure you-" began the Prophet, hastily.

But Malkiel sternly interrupted him.

"Search yourself, sir, I beg!" he cried.

"But upon my honour-"

"Hush, sir, hush! I beg, nay, I insist, that you search yourself thoroughly before you answer this momentous question."

The Prophet felt rather disposed to ask whether Malkiel expected him to examine his pockets and turn out his boots. However, he sat still while Malkiel drew out a large gold watch, held it solemnly in his hand for a couple of minutes and then returned it to the waistcoat.

"Now, sir," he said.

"I assure you," said the Prophet, "on my honour that all I have said is strictly true."

"And took place in the Berkeley Square?"

"And took place in the Berkeley Square."

Malkiel nodded morosely.

"It may have been chance," he said. "A weather forecast and an honoured grandmother may have been mere luck. Still it looks bad-very bad."

He sighed heavily, and seemed about to fall into a mournful reverie when the Prophet cried sharply,-

"Explain yourself, Malkiel the Second. You owe it to me to explain yourself. Why should my strange gift-"

"If you have it, sir," interrupted Malkiel, quickly.

"If I have it, very well-affect you? Why should it render the self-sacrifice and-and the position of-of Sagittarius Lodge on the river-the river-what river did you say-?"

"The River Mouse," rejoined Malkiel in a muffled voice, and shaking his head sadly.

"Exactly-on the River Mouse at Crompton-"

"Crampton."

"Crampton St. Peter total-"

"N.!"

"What?"

"Crampton St. Peter. N. That is the point."

"Very well-Crampton St. Peteren, totally and entirely unnecessary?"

"You desire my revelation, sir? You desire to enter into the bosom of a family that hitherto has dwelt apart, has lain as I may say perdew beside the secret waters of the River Mouse? Is it indeed so?"

"Oh, I beg your pardon," cried the Prophet, hastily. "I would not for the world intrude upon-"

"Those hallowed precincts! Well, perhaps you have the right. Jellybrand's has betrayed me to you. You know my name, my profession. Why should you not know more? Perhaps it is better so."

With the sudden energy of a man who is reckless of fate he seized his goblet, poured into it at least a shilling's worth of "creaming foam," drained it to the dregs and, shaking back his matted hair with a leonine movement of the head, exclaimed,-

"Malkiel the First, who founded the Almanac, lay perdew all his life."

"Beside the secret waters of the River Mouse?" the Prophet could not help interposing.

"No, sir. He would never have gone so far as that. But he lived and died in Susan Road beside the gas-works. He was a great man."

"I'm sure he was," said the Prophet, heartily.

"He wished me to live and die there too," said Malkiel. "But there are limits, sir, even to the forbearance of women. Madame was affected, painfully affected, by the gas, sir. It stank in her nostrils-to use a figure. And then there was another drawback that she could not get over."

"Indeed!"

"The sweeps, sir."

"I beg your pardon!" said the Prophet.

"I said-the sweeps."

"I heard you-well?"

"Being the only people that were not, in the whole road, made for loneliness, sir."

The Prophet was entirely bouleverse.

"I'm afraid I'm very stupid, but really I-" he began.

"Is it possible that you live in London, sir, and are not aware that Susan Road lies in the most sought-after portion of the sweeps' quarter?" said Malkiel, with pitying amazement.

The Prophet blushed with shame.

"I beg your pardon. Of course-I understand. Pray go on."

"It made for loneliness, sir."

"Naturally."

"Their hours were not our hours. And then the professional colour! Madame said it was like living among the Sandwich Islanders. And so, to an extent, it was. My father had left a very tidy bit of money-a very tidy bit indeed, and we resolved to move. But where? That was the problem. For I was not as other men. I could not live like them-in the Berkeley Square."

He smiled with mournful superiority and continued,-

"At least I thought so then, and have done till to-day. Prophets-so my father believed, and so Madame-must be connected with the suburbs or with outlying districts. They must not, indeed they cannot, be properly prophetic within the radius. A central atmosphere would reduce them to the level of the conjuror or the muscular suggestionist. Malkiel the First, my father, was born himself in Peckham, and met my mother when coming through the rye."

He brushed aside a tear that flowed at this almost rustic recollection, and continued,-

"Yet Madame was wishful, and I was wishful too, that the children-if we had any-should not grow up Eastern. It was a natural and a beautiful desire, sir, was it not?"

"Oh, very," replied the Prophet, considerably confused.

"The habits and manners of the East, you see, sir, are not always in strict accordance with propriety. Are they?"

Before the Prophet had time to realise that this question was merely rhetorical, he began,-

"From what Professor Seligman says in his The Inner History of Baghdad, I feel sure-"

"Nor are the customs of the East quite what many a clergyman would approve of," continued Malkiel. "Yet even this was not what weighed most with Madame."

"What was it then?" inquired the Prophet, deeply interested.

"Sir, it was the Eastern language."

"Ah!"

"Could we let our children learn to speak it? Could we bear to launch them in life, handicapped, weighed down by such a tongue? Could we do this?"

Again the Prophet mistook the nature of the question, and was led to reply,-

"Certainly English children speaking only Arabic might well be at some loss in ordinary conver-"

"We could not, sir. It was impossible. So we resolved to go to the north of London and to avoid Whitechapel at whatever cost."

"Whitechapel!" almost cried the Prophet.

"This determination it was, sir, that eventually led our steps to the borders of the River Mouse."

"Oh, really!"

"You know it, sir?"

"Not personally."

"But by repute, of course?"

"No doubt, no doubt," stammered the Prophet, who had in fact never before heard of this celebrated flood.

"That poor governess, sir, last August-you recollect?"

"Ah, indeed!" murmured the Prophet, a trifle incoherently.

"And then the mad undertaker in the autumn," continued Malkiel, with conscious pride; "he floated past our very door."

"Did he really?"

"Singing his swan song, no doubt, poor feller, as Madame said after she read about it in the paper. There were the grocer's twins as well, just lately. But they will be fresh in your memory."

Before the Prophet had time to state whether this was so or not Malkiel proceeded,-

"Well, sir, as soon as Madame and I had come to the Mouse we resolved that we could do no better than that. It was salubrious, it was retired, and it was N."

"You said-?"

"N., sir."

"But what is en?"

"Sir?"

The Prophet had grown very red, but he was seized by the desperation that occasionally attacks ignorance, and renders it, for a moment, determinedly explicit.

"I ask you what does en mean? I am, I fear, a very ill-informed person, and I really don't know."

"Think of an envelope, sir," said Malkiel, with gentle commiseration. "Well, are you thinking?"

The Prophet grew purple.

"I am-but it is no use. Besides, why on earth should I think of an envelope? I beg you to explain."

"North, sir, the northern postal district of the metropolis. Fairly simple that-I think, sir."

"N.!" cried the illuminated Prophet. "I see. I was thinking of en all the time. I beg your pardon. Please go on. N.-of course!"

Malkiel concealed a smile, just sufficiently to make its existence for an instant vitally prominent, and continued,-

"By the Mouse we resolved to build a detached residence such as would influence suitably the minds of the children-should we have any. For we had resolved, sir, by that time that with me the Almanac should cease."

Here Malkiel leaned forward upon the deal table and lowered his voice to an impressive whisper.

"Yes, sir, it had come to that. We all have our ambitions and that was mine."

"Good Heavens!" said the Prophet. "Malkiel's Almanac cease! But why? Such a very useful institution!"

"Useful! More than that, sir, sublime! There's nothing like it."

"Then why let it cease?"

"Because the social status of the prophet, sir, is not agreeable to myself or Madame. I've had enough of it, sir, already, and I'm barely turned of fifty. Besides, my father would have wished it, I feel sure, had he lived in these days. Had he seen Sagittarius Lodge, the children, and how Madame comports herself, he would have recognised that the family was destined to rise into a higher sphere than that occupied by any prophet, however efficient. Besides, I will not deceive you, I have made money. In another ten years' time, when I have laid by sufficient, I tell you straight, sir, that I shall go out of prophecy, right out of it."

"Then your Capricor-that is your son-will not carry on the-"

"Capricornus a prophet, sir!" cried Malkiel. "Not if Madame and I know it. No, sir, Capricornus is to be an architect."

As Malkiel pronounced

the last words he flung his black overcoat wide open with an ample gesture, thrust one hand into his breast, and assumed the fixed and far-seeing gaze of a man in a cabinet photograph. He seemed lost to his surroundings, and rapt by some great vision of enchanted architects, busy in drawing plans of the magic buildings of the future ages. The Prophet felt that it would be impious to disturb him. Malkiel's reverie was long, and indeed the two prophets might well have been sitting in Jellybrand's parlour now, had not a violent sneeze called for the pink assistance of the flight of storks, and brought the sneezer down to the level of ordinary humanity.

"Yes, sir-I give you my word Capricornus is to be an architect," repeated Malkiel. "What do you say to that?"

"Is it-is it really a better profession than that of prophecy?" asked the Prophet, rather nervously.

Malkiel smiled mournfully.

"Sir, it may not be more lucrative, but it is more select. Madame will not mix with prophets, but she has a 'day,' sir, on the banks of the Mouse, and she has gathered around her a very pleasant and select little circle."

"Indeed."

"Yes, sir. Architects and their wives. You understand?"

"Quite," rejoined the Prophet, "quite."

Under the mesmeric influence of Malkiel he began to feel as if architects were some strange race of sacred beings set apart, denizens of some holy isle or blessed nook of mediaeval legend. Would he ever meet them? Would he ever encounter one ranging unfettered where flowed the waters of the River Mouse?

"They do not know who we are, sir," continued Malkiel, furtively. "To them and to the whole world-excepting Jellybrand's and you-we are the Sagittariuses of Sagittarius Lodge, people at ease, sir, living upon our competence beside the Mouse. They do not see the telescope, sir, in the locked studio at the top of the lodge. They do not know why sometimes, on Madame's 'Wednesdays,' I am pale-with sitting up on behalf of the Almanac. For Capricornus's sake and for Corona's all this is hid from the world. Madame and I are the victims of a double life. Yes, sir, for the children's sake we have never dared to let it be known what I really am."

Suddenly he began to grow excited.

"And now," he cried, "after all these years of secrecy, after all these years of avoiding the central districts-in which Madame longs to live-after all these years of seclusion beyond the beat even of the buses, do you come here to me, and search yourself and say upon your oath that a prophet can live and be a prophet in the Berkeley Square, that he can read the stars with Gunter's just opposite, ay, and bring out an almanac if he likes within a shilling fare of the Circus? If this is so"-he struck the deal table violently with his clenched fist-"of what use are the sacrifices of myself and Madame? Of what use is it to live under a modest name such as Sagittarius, when I might be Malkiel the Second to the whole world? Of what use to flee from W. and dwell perpetually in N.? Why, if what you say is true, we might leave the Mouse to-morrow and Madame could pop in and out of the Stores just like any lady of pleasure."

At the thought of this so long foregone enchantment Malkiel's emotion completely overcame him, his voice died away, overborne by a violent fit of choking, and he sat back in his cane chair trembling in every limb. The Prophet was deeply moved by his emotion, and longed most sincerely to assuage it. But his deep and growing conviction of his own power rendered him useless as a comforter. He could not lie. He could not deny that he was a prophet. He could only say, in his firmest voice,-

"Malkiel the Second, be brave. You must see this thing through."

On hearing these original and noble words Malkiel lifted up his marred countenance.

"I know it, sir, I know it," he answered. "One moment. The thought of Madame-the Stores-I-of all that might perhaps have been-"

He choked again. The Prophet looked away. A strong man's emotion is always very scared and very terrible. Three minutes swept by, then the Prophet heard a calm and hollow voice say,-

"And now, sir, to business."

The Prophet looked up, and perceived that Malkiel's overcoat was tightly buttoned and that his mouth was tightly set in an expression of indomitable, though tragic, resolution.

"What business?" asked the Prophet.

"Mine," replied Malkiel. "Mine, sir, and yours. You have chosen to enter my life. You cannot deny that. You cannot deny that I sought to avoid-I might even say to dodge you."

With the remembrance of the recent circus performance in the library still strong upon him the Prophet could not. He bowed his head.

"Very well, sir. You have chosen to enter my life. That act has given me the right to enter yours. Am I correct?"

"I suppose-I mean-yes, you are," answered the Prophet, overwhelmed by the pitiless logic of his companion, and wondering what was coming next.

"I have been forced-I think I may say that-to reveal myself to you, sir. Nothing can ever alter that. Nothing can ever take from you the knowledge-denied by Madame to the very architects-of who I really am. You have told me, sir, that I must see this thing through. I tell you now, at this table, in this parlour, that I intend to see it through-and through."

As Malkiel said the last words he gazed at the Prophet with eyes that seemed suddenly to have taken on the peculiar properties of the gimlet. The Prophet began to feel extremely uneasy. But he said nothing. He felt that there was more to come. And he was right.

"It is my duty," continued Malkiel, in a louder voice, "my sacred duty to Madame-to say nothing of Corona and Capricornus-to probe you to the core"-here the Prophet could not resist a startled movement of protest-"and to search you to the quick."

"Oh, really!" cried the Prophet.

"This duty I shall carry out unflinchingly," pursued Malkiel, "at whatever cost to myself. This will not be our last interview. Do not think it."

"I assure you," inserted the Prophet, endeavouring vainly to seem at ease, "I do not wish to think it."

"It matters little whether you wish to do so or not," continued Malkiel, with an increasingly Juggernaut air. "The son of Malkiel the First is not a man to be trifled with or dodged. Moreover, much more than the future of myself and family depends upon what you really are. From this day forth you will be bound up with the Almanac."

"Merciful Heavens!" ejaculated the Prophet, unable, intrepid as he was, to avoid recoiling when he found himself thus suddenly confronted with the fate of an appendix.

"For why should it ever cease?" proceeded Malkiel, with growing passion. "Why-if a prophet can live, as you declare, freely and openly in the Berkeley Square? If this is so, why should I not remove, along with Madame and family, from the borders of the Mouse and reside henceforth in a central situation such as I should wish to reside in? Why should not Capricornus eventually succeed me in the Almanac as I succeeded Malkiel the First? Already the boy shows the leanings of a prophet. Hitherto Madame and I have endeavoured to stifle them, to turn them in an architectural direction. You understand?"

"I am trying to," stammered the Prophet.

"Hitherto we have corrected the boy's table manners when they have become too like those of the average prophet-as they often have-for hitherto we have had reason to believe that all prophets-with the exception of myself-were dirty, deceitful and essentially suburban persons. But if you are a prophet we have been deceived. Trust me, sir, I shall find speedy means to pierce you to the very marrow."

The Prophet began mechanically to feel for his hat.

"Are you desirous of anything, sir?" said Malkiel, sharply.

"No," said the Prophet, wondering whether the moment had arrived to throw off all further pretence of bravery and to shout boldly for the assistance of the young librarian.

"Then why are you feeling about, sir? Why are you feeling about?"

"Was I?" faltered the Prophet.

"You are looking for another glass of wine, perhaps?"

"No, indeed," said the Prophet, desperately. "For anything but that."

But Malkiel, moved by some abruptly formed resolution, called suddenly in a powerful voice,-

"Frederick Smith!"

"Here, Mr. Sagittarius!" cried the young librarian, appearing with suspicious celerity upon the parlour threshold.

"Draw the cork of the second bottle, Frederick Smith," said Malkiel, impressively. "This gentleman is about to take the pledge"-on hearing this ironic paradox the Prophet stood up, very much in the attitude formerly assumed by Malkiel when about to dodge in the library-"that I shall put to him," concluded Malkiel, also standing up, and assuming the library posture of the Prophet.

Indeed the situation of the library seemed about to be accurately reversed in the parlour of Jellybrand's.

The young librarian assisted the cork to emerge phlegmatically from the neck of the second bottle of champagne, mechanically smacking his lips the while.

"Now pour, and leave us, Frederick Smith."

The young librarian helped the fatigued-looking wine into the two glasses, where it lay as if thoroughly exhausted by the effort of getting there, and then languidly left the parlour, turning his bulging head over his shoulder to indulge in a pathetic oeillade ere he vanished.

The Prophet watched him go.

"Close the door, Frederick Smith," cried Malkiel, in a meaning manner.

The Prophet blushed a guilty red, and the young librarian obeyed with a bang.

"And now, sir, I must request you to take a solemn pledge in this vintage," said Malkiel, placing one of the tumblers in the Prophet's trembling hand.

"Really," said the Prophet, "I am not at all thirsty."

"Why should you be, sir? What has that got to do with it?" retorted Malkiel. "Lift your glass, sir."

The Prophet obeyed.

"And now take this pledge-that, till the last day-"

"What day?"

"The last day, sir, you will reveal to no living person that there is such an individual as Malkiel, that you have ever met him, who he is, or who Madame and family are, unless I give the word. You have surprised my secret. You have forced yourself upon me. You owe me this. Drink!"

Mechanically the Prophet drank.

"Swear!"

Mechanically-indeed almost like a British working man-the Prophet swore.

Malkiel drained his tumbler, and drew on the dogskin glove which, in the agitation of a previous moment, he had thrown aside.

"I have your card, sir, here is mine. I shall now take the train to the River Mouse, on whose banks I shall confer at once with Madame. Till I have done this I cannot tell you what form the tests I shall have to apply to you will take. When I have done it you will hear from me. Your servant, sir."

He bowed majestically, and was turning towards the door when it was hastily opened and a lady appeared frantically in the aperture.

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