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   Chapter 8 THE PROPHET RECEIVES HIS DIRECTIONS FROM MADAME

The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 26774

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


When the Prophet reached his door he rang the bell with a rather faltering hand. Mr. Ferdinand appeared.

"Any one called, Mr. Ferdinand?" asked the Prophet with an attempt at airy gaiety.

"Yes, sir," replied Mr. Ferdinand, looking rather like an elderly maiden lady when she unexpectedly encounters her cook taking an airing with a corporal in the Life Guards, "the pair of persons you expected, sir, has come."

The Prophet blushed.

"Oh! You-you haven't disturbed Mrs. Merillia with them, I hope," he rejoined.

"No, sir, indeed. Gustavus said your orders was that they was to be shown quietly to the library."

"Exactly."

"I begged them to walk a-tiptoe, sir."

"What?" ejaculated the Prophet.

"I informed them there was illness in the house, sir."

"And did they-er-?"

"The male person got on his toes at once, sir, but the female person shrieks out, 'Is it catching? Ho! Think of-of Capericornopus,' sir, or something to that effect."

"Tch! Tch!"

"I took the liberty to say, sir, that ankles was not catching, and that I would certainly think of Capericornopus if she would but walk a-tiptoe."

"Well, and-"

"By hook and cook I got them to the library, sir. But the male person's boots creaked awful. The getting on his toes, sir seemed to induce it, as you might say."

"Yes, yes. So they're in the library?"

"They are, sir, and have been talking incessant, sir, ever since they was put there. We can hear their voices in our hall, sir."

Mr. Ferdinand again pursed his lips and looked like an elderly lady. The Prophet could no longer meet his eye.

"Bring some tea, Mr. Ferdinand, quietly to the library. And-and if Mrs. Merillia should ask for me say I'm-say I'm busy-er-writing."

Mr. Ferdinand moved a step backward.

"Master Hennessey!" he cried in a choked voice. "I, a London butler, and you ask me to-!"

"No, no. I beg your pardon, Mr. Ferdinand. Simply say I'm busy. That will be quite true. I shall be-very busy."

"Yes, sir," said Mr. Ferdinand with a stern and at length successful effort to conquer his outraged feelings.

He wavered heavily away to fetch the tea, while the Prophet, like a guilty thing, stole towards the library. When he drew near to the door he heard a somewhat resounding hubbub of conversation proceeding within the chamber. He distinguished two voices. One was the hollow and sepulchral organ of Malkiel the Second, the other was a heavy and authoritative contralto, of the buzzing variety, which occasionally gave an almost professional click-suggesting mechanism-as the speaker passed from the lower to the upper register of her voice. As the Prophet reached the mat outside the door he heard the contralto voice say,-

"How are we to know it really is only ankles?"

The voice of Malkiel the Second replied plaintively,-

"But the gentleman who opened the door and-"

The contralto voice clicked, and passed to its upper register.

"You are over fifty years of age," it said with devastating compassion, "and you can still trust a gentleman who opens doors! O sanctum simplicitatus!"

On hearing this sudden gush of classical erudition the Prophet must have been seized by a paralysing awe, for he remained as if glued to the mat, and made no effort to open the door and step into the room.

"If I am sanctified, Sophronia," said the voice of Malkiel, "I cannot help it, indeed I can't. We are as we are."

"Did Bottom say so in his epics?" cried the contralto, contemptuously. "Did Shakespeare imply that when he invented his immortal Bacon, or Carlyle, the great Cumberland sage, when he penned his world-famed 'Sartus'?"

"P'r'aps not, my dear. You know best. Still, ordinary men-not that I, of course, can claim to be one-must remain, to a certain extent, what they are."

"Then why was Samuel Smiles born?"

"What, my love?"

"Why, I say? Where is the use of effort? Of what benefit was Plato's existence to the republic? Of what assistance has the great Tracy Tupper been if men must still, despite all his proverbs, remain what they are? O curum hominibus! O imitatori! Servus pecum!"

At this point the voice of Mr. Ferdinand remarked in the small of the Prophet's back,-

"Shall I set down the tea on the mat, sir, or-"

The Prophet bounded into the library, tingling in every vein. His panther-like entrance evidently took the two conversationalists aback, for Malkiel the Second, who had been plaintively promenading about the room, still on his toes according to the behest of Mr. Ferdinand, sat down violently on a small table as if he had been shot, while the contralto voice, which had been sitting on a saddle-back chair by the hearth, simultaneously bounced up; both these proceedings being carried out with the frantic promptitude characteristic of complete and unhesitating terror.

"I beg your pardon!" said the Prophet. "I hope I haven't disturbed you."

Malkiel the Second leaned back, the contralto voice leaned forward, and both breathed convulsively.

"I really must apologise," continued the Prophet. "I fear I have startled you."

His guests swallowed nothing simultaneously and mechanically drew out their handkerchiefs. Then Malkiel feebly got up and the contralto voice feebly sank down again.

"I-I thought I said sharp, sir," remarked Malkiel, at length, with a great effort recovering himself.

"Wasn't I sharp?" returned the Prophet. "Will you present me?"

"Are you equal to it, my love?" inquired Malkiel, tenderly, to the contralto voice.

The contralto voice nodded hysterically.

"Madame Sagittarius, sir," said Malkiel, turning proudly to the Prophet, "my wife, the mother of Corona and Capricornus."

The Prophet bowed and the lady inclined herself, slightly protruding her elbows as she did so, as if just to draw attention to the fact that she was possessed of those appendages and could use them if necessary.

Madame Malkiel, or rather Madame Sagittarius, as she must for the present be called, was a smallish woman of some forty winters. Her hair, which was drawn away intellectually from an ample and decidedly convex brow, was as black as a patent leather boot, and had a gloss upon it as of carefully-adjusted varnish. Her eyes were very large, very dark and very prominent. Her features were obstreperous and rippling, running from right to left, and her teeth, which were shaded by a tiny black moustache, gleamed in a manner that could scarcely be called natural. She was attired in a black velvet gown trimmed with a very large quantity of beadwork, a bonnet adorned with purple cherries, green tulips and orange-coloured ostrich tips, a pelisse, to which bugles had been applied with no uncertain hand, and an opal necklace. Her gloves were of white, her boots of black kid, the latter being furnished with elastic sides, and over her left wrist she carried a plush reticule, whose mouth was kept shut by a tightly-drawn scarlet riband. On the left side of her pelisse reposed a round bouquet of violets about the size of a Rugby football.

"I thought you might like to have some tea," began the Prophet, in his most soothing manner, while Mr. Ferdinand, with pursed lips, softly arranged that beverage upon the seat which Mr. Sagittarius-so we must call him-had just vacated.

"Thank you," said Madame Sagittarius, with dignity. "It would be acceptable. The long journey from the banks of the Mouse to these central districts is not without its fatigue. A beautiful equipage!"

"You said-"

"You have a very fine equipage."

"You have seen the brougham?" said the Prophet, in some surprise.

"What broom?" buzzed Madame Sagittarius.

"I thought you were admiring-"

"The tea equipage."

"Oh, yes, to be sure. Queen Anne silver, yes."

"A great woman!" said Madame Sagittarius, spreading a silk handkerchief that exactly matched the ostrich tips in her bonnet carefully over her velvet lap. "All who have read Mrs. Markham's work of genius with understanding must hold her name in reverence. A noble creature! A pity she died!"

"A great pity indeed!"

"Still we must remember that Mors omnis communibus. We must not forget that."

"No, no."

"And after all it is the will of Providence. Mors Deo."

"Quite so."

During this classical and historical retrospect Mr. Ferdinand had finished his task and quitted the apartment. As soon as he had gone Madame Sagittarius continued,-

"As the mother of Corona and Capricornus I feel it my duty to ask you, sir-that is, Mr.-"

"Vivian."

"Mr. Vivian, whether the illness in your house is really only ankles as the gentleman who opened the door assured me?"

"It is only that."

"Not catching?"

"Oh, dear, no."

"There, Sophronia!" said Mr. Sagittarius. "I told you it was merely the prophecy."

He suddenly assumed a formidable manner, and continued,-

"And now, sir, that we are alone-"

But Madame interrupted him.

"Kindly permit our host to succour my fatigue, Jupiter," she said severely. "I am greatly upset by the journey. When I am restored we can proceed to business. At present I am fit only for consolation."

Mr. Sagittarius subsided, and the Prophet hastily assisted the victim of prolonged travel to some buttered toast. Having also attended to the wants of her precipitate underling, he thought it a good opportunity to proceed to a full explanation with the august couple, and he therefore remarked, with an ingratiating and almost tender smile,-

"I think I ought to tell you at once that there will be no need for any further anxiety on your part. I have put down my telescope and have-well, in fact, I have decided once and for all to give up prophecy for the future."

The Prophet, in his innocence, had expected that this declaration of policy would exercise a soothing influence upon his guests, more especially when he added-it is to be feared with some insincerity,-

"I have come to the conclusion that I overrated my powers, as amateurs will, you know, and that I have never really possessed any special talent in that direction. I think I shall take up golf instead, or perhaps the motor car."

He spoke deliberately in a light-minded, even frivolous, manner, toying airily with a sugar biscuit, as he leaned back in his chair, which stood opposite to Madame Sagittarius's. To his great surprise his well-meaning remarks were received with every symptom of grave dissatisfaction by his illustrious companions. Madame Sagittarius threw herself suddenly forward with a most vivacious snort, and her husband's face was immediately overcast by a threatening gloom that seemed to portend some very disagreeable expression of adverse humour.

"That won't do, sir, at this time of day!" he exclaimed. "You should have thought of that yesterday. That won't do at all, will it, Madame?"

"O miseris hominorum mentas!" exclaimed that lady, tragically. "O pectorae caecae!"

"You hear her, sir?" continued Mr. Sagittarius. "You grasp her meaning?"

"I do hear certainly," said the Prophet, beginning to feel that he really must rub up his classics.

"She helps Capricornus, sir, of an evening. She assists him in his Latin. Madame is a lady of deep education, sir."

"Quite so. But-"

"There can be no going back, sir," continued Mr. Sagittarius. "Can there, Madame?"

"No human creature can go back," said Madame Sagittarius. "Such is the natural law as exemplified by the great Charles Darwin in his Vegetable Mould and Silkworms. No human creature can go back. Least of all this gentleman. He must go forward and we with him."

The Prophet began to feel uncomfortable.

"But-" he said.

"There is no such word as 'but' in my dictionary," retorted the lady.

"Ah, an abridged edition, no doubt," said the Prophet. "Still-"

"I am better now," interposed Madame Sagittarius, brushing some crumbs of toast from her pelisse with the orange handkerchief. "Jupiter, if you are ready, we can explain the test to the gentleman."

So saying she drew a vinaigrette, set with fine imitation carbuncles, from the plush reticule, and applied it majestically to her nose. The Prophet grew really perturbed. He remembered his promise to his grandmother and Sir Tiglath, and felt that he must assert himself more strongly.

"I assure you," he began, with some show of firmness, "no tests will be necessary. My telescope has already been removed from its position, and-"

"Then it must be reinstated, sir," said Mr. Sagittarius, "and this very night. Madame has hit upon a plan, sir, of searching you to the quick. Trust a woman, sir, to do that."

"I should naturally trust Madame Sagittarius," said the Prophet, very politely. "But I really cannot-"

"So you say, sir. Our business is to find out whether, living in the Berkeley Square as you do, you can bring off a prophecy of any importance or not. The future of myself, Madame and family depends upon the results of the experiments which we shall make upon you during the next few days."

The Prophet began to feel as if he were shut up alone with a couple of determined practitioners of vivisection.

"Let's see, my dear," continued Mr. Sagittarius, addressing his wife, "what was it to be?"

"The honored grandmother one," replied the lady, tersely.

The Prophet started.

"I cannot possibly consent-" he began.

"Pray, Mr. Vivian, listen to me," interposed Mad

ame Sagittarius.

"Pray, sir, attend to Madame!" said Mr. Sagittarius, sternly.

"But I must really-"

"January," said Madame, "is a month of grave importance to grandmothers this year, is it not, Jupiter?"

"Yes, my dear. In consequence of Scorpio being in the sign of Sagittarius. The crab will be very busy up till the third of February."

"Just so."

"At which date the little dog, my love, assumes the roll of maleficence towards the aged."

"I know. Cane cavem. When was the old lady born, Mr. Vivian, if you please?"

"What old lady?" stammered the Prophet, beginning to perspire.

"The old lady who's got ankles, your honoured grandmother?"

"On the twentieth of this month. But-"

"At what time?"

"Six in the morning. But-"

"Under what star?"

"Saturn. But-"

"That's lucky, isn't it, Jupiter?" said Madame, in an increasingly business-like manner. "That brings her into touch with the Camelopard-doesn't it?"

"Into very close touch indeed, my dear, and also with the bull. He goes right to her, as you may say."

"I cannot conceivably permit-" began the Prophet in much agitation.

But Madame, without taking the smallest notice of him, proceeded.

"Will the scorpion be round her on her birthday?"

"Close round her, my love-with the serpent. They work together."

"Together, do they? You know what effect they'll have on her, don't you, Jupiter?"

"I should rather think so, my darling," replied Mr. Sagittarius, with an air of profound and sinister information.

The Prophet's blood ran cold in his veins. Yet he felt for the moment unable to utter a syllable, or even to make a gesture of protest. So entirely detached from him did the worthy couple appear to be, so completely wrapped up in their own evidently well-considered and carefully-laid plans, that he had a sense of being in another sphere, not theirs, of hearing their remarks from some distance off. Madame Sagittarius now turned towards him in a formal manner, and continued.

"And now, Mr. Vivian, I shall have to lay down the procedure that you will follow. Have you a good memory-no, a pencil and notebook will be best. Litterae scriptus manetur, as we all know full well. Have you a pencil and-?"

The Prophet nodded mechanically.

"Will you kindly get them?"

The Prophet rose, walked to his writing table and felt for the implements.

"If you will sit down now I will direct you," continued Madame, authoritatively.

The Prophet sat down at the table, holding a lead pencil upside down in one hand and an account-book wrong side up in the other.

"Let's see-what's to-day?" inquired Madame, of her husband.

"The seventeenth, my dear," replied Mr. Sagittarius, looking at his wife with almost sickly adoration.

"To be sure. Capricornus's day for Homer's Idyl. Very well, Mr. Vivian, to-day being the seventeenth, and the old lady's birthday the twentieth, you have three days, or rather nights, of steady work before you."

"Steady work?" murmured the Prophet.

"What should be his hours, Jupiter?" continued Madame. "At what time of night is he to commence? Shall I say nine?"

The Prophet remembered feebly that, during the next three nights, he had two important dinner-engagements, a party at the Russian Ambassador's, and a reception at the Lord Chancellor's just opposite. However, he made no remark. Somehow he felt that words were useless when confronted with such an iron will as that of the lady in the pelisse.

"Nine would be too early, my dear," said Mr. Sagittarius. "Eleven p.m. would be more to the purpose."

"Eleven let it be then, punctually. Will you dot down, Mr. Vivian, that you have to be at the telescope to take observations at eleven p.m. every night from now till the twentieth."

"But I have had the telesc-"

"Kindly dot it down."

The Prophet dotted it down with the wrong end of the pencil on the wrong side of the account-book.

"And what are his hours to be exactly, Jupiter?" continued Madame. "From eleven till dawn, I suppose?"

The Prophet shuddered.

"Eleven till three will be sufficient, my love. The crab, you know, has pretty well done his London work by that time. And the old lady will have to depend very much on the crab for these few nights."

At this point the Prophet's brain began to swim. Sparks seemed to float before his eyes, and amid these sparks, nebulous and fragmentary visions appeared, visions of his beloved grandmother companioned by scorpions and serpents, in close touch with camelopards and bovine monsters, and, in the last stress of terror and dismay, left entirely dependent upon crustaceans for that help and comfort which hitherto her devoted grandson had ever been thankful to afford.

"Oh, very well," replied Madame. "You will be able to get to bed at three, Mr. Vivian. Dot that down."

"Thank you," murmured the Prophet, making a minute pencil scratch in the midst of a bill for butcher's meat.

"During these hours-but you can tell him the rest, Jupiter."

So saying, and with an air of one retiring from business upon a well-earned competence, Madame Sagittarius lay back in her chair, settled her bonnet-strings, flicked a crumb from the football of violets that decorated her left side, and, extending her kid boots towards the cheerful blaze that came from the fire, fell with a sigh into a comfortable meditation. Mr. Sagittarius, on the other hand, assumed a look of rather hectoring authority, and was about to utter what the Prophet had very little doubt was a command when there came a gentle tap to the door.

"Come in," said the Prophet.

He thought he had spoken in his ordinary voice. In reality he had merely uttered a very small whisper. The tap was repeated.

"Louder, sir, louder!" said Mr. Sagittarius, encouragingly.

"Come in!" shrieked the Prophet.

Mr. Ferdinand appeared, looking more like the elderly spinster lady when confronted with the corporal in the Life Guards than ever.

"If you please, sir, I was to tell you that Lady Enid Thistle is with Mrs. Merillia taking tea. Mrs. Merillia thought you would wish to know."

Madame Sagittarius took the kid boots from the blaze on hearing this aristocratic name. Mr. Sagittarius assumed a look of reverence, and the Prophet realised, more acutely than ever, that even well-born young women can be inquisitive.

"Very well," he said. "Say I'll-I'll"-he succeeded in making his voice sound absolutely firm-"I'll come in a moment."

"Yes, sir."

Mr. Ferdinand cast a glance of respectful, but unlimited, horror upon the Prophet's guests and retired, while the Prophet, calling upon all his manhood, turned to Mr. Sagittarius.

"I regret more than I can say that I shall be obliged now to obey my grandmother's summons," he said courteously. "Suppose we defer this-this pleasant little discussion to some future oc-"

"Impossible, sir!" cried Mr. Sagittarius. "Quite impossible. You must get to work to-night, and how can you do it without your directions?"

"Oh, I can manage all right," said the Prophet, desperately. "I can give a guess as to-"

"Non sunt ad astrae mollibus a terrus viae!" cried Madame. "The road from Berkeley square to the stars is not so easy, is it, Jupiter?"

"No indeed, my love. Why-"

"Then," exclaimed the Prophet, much agitated, and feeling it incumbent upon him to get rid of Mr. Sagittarius at once lest the curiosity of Lady Enid should increase beyond all measure, and lead to an encounter between the two clients of Jellybrand's, "then kindly give me my directions as briefly as possible, and-"

There was another tap upon the door.

"What is it?" cried the Prophet, distractedly, "Come in!"

Mr. Ferdinand re-entered very delicately.

"Her ladyship can only stay a minute, sir. Mrs. Merillia hopes you can leave your business-I said as you was very busy, sir-and come up to the drawing-room."

"Yes, yes. I'll come. Say I'll come, Mr. Ferdinand."

"Yes, sir."

As the door closed the Prophet exclaimed excitedly,-

"I fear I really must-"

"Take down your directions, sir," broke in Mr. Sagittarius, firmly.

"Very well," rejoined the Prophet, desperately, seizing his pencil and the account-book. "What are they?"

"You swear to follow them, sir?"

"Yes, yes, anything-anything!"

"Have you a star map?"

"Yes-no!"

"You must get one."

"Very well."

"You had better do so at the Stores."

Madame breathed an almost sensuous sigh which caused her husband to glance tenderly towards her.

"I know, my love, I know," he said. "It may come some day."

"O festum dies! Longa intervallam!" she murmured, shaking her bonnet with the manner of a martyr to duty.

Mr. Sagittarius was greatly moved.

"She's a saint," he whispered aside to the Prophet, as if imparting some necessary information.

"Certainly. Please go on!"

Mr. Sagittarius started, as if suddenly recalled to mundane matters.

"Get it at the Stores," he said. "In the astronomical department."

"Very well."

"Having done so, and keeping the old lady perpetually in your mind, you will place her in the claws of the crab-"

"What!"

"Mentally, sir, mentally, of course."

"Oh."

"And, allowing for the natural effect of the scorpion and serpent upon one of her venerable age-"

"Good Heavens!"

"When close round her, as they will be-but you will observe that for yourself-"

The Prophet shut his eyes as one who refuses to behold sacrilege.

"You will trace the cycloidal curve of the planets-can you do that?"

The Prophet nodded.

"As it affects her birthday, the twentieth. Should the lynx be near her-"

"No, no!" cried the Prophet. "It shall not be!"

"Well, you'll have to find that out and keep an eye to it. But should it be, you will commit to paper what result its presence is likely to produce to her, and work the whole thing out clearly for myself and Madame on paper-in prophetic form, of course-so that we receive it by-what post shall I say, my dear?"

"First post, Jupiter."

"First post on-what day is the twentieth?"

"I don't know," replied the Prophet, helplessly.

"A Thursday," said Madame. "Capricornus's day for chronic sections."

"She always knows," said Mr. Sagittarius to the Prophet.

"Always."

"Very well then, first post Thursday morning. Now is that quite clear?"

"Oh, quite, quite."

"You will of course send the old lady's horoscope to us at the same time with full particulars."

"Full particulars?" said the Prophet. "What of?"

"Of her removal from the bottle, cutting of her first tooth, short coating, going into skirts, putting of the hair up, day of marriage and widowhood, illnesses-"

"Especially the rashes, Jupiter," struck in Madame.

"What a mind!" said Mr. Sagittarius aside to the Prophet.

"What!"

"Especially as Madame says, any illnesses taking the form of a rash-the epidemic form, as I may say-and so forth. We are to receive this document by the first post Thursday morning."

"Have you dotted all that down, Mr. Vivian?" inquired Madame.

The Prophet hastily made a large variety of scratches with the lead pencil.

"And now," continued Mr. Sagittarius.

There was a third tap at the door.

"Come in," cried the Prophet, distractedly, and feeling as if homicidal mania were rapidly creeping upon him.

Mr. Ferdinand appeared once more, with a mouth like a purse.

"Her ladyship says she really must go in a moment, sir, and-and Mrs. Merillia begs that-"

"I am coming at once, Mr. Ferdinand. I swear it. Go upstairs and swear I swear it."

"Yes, sir."

Mr. Ferdinand departed, rather with the demeanour of an archbishop who has been inveigled into pledging himself, on his archiepiscopal oath, to commit some horrid crime. The Prophet turned, almost violently, towards his guests.

"I must go," he cried. "I must indeed. Pray forgive me. You see how I am circumstanced. Permit me to show you to the door."

"You swear, sir, to carry out all our directions and to dot down-"

"I do. I swear solemnly to dot down-if you will only-this way. Take care of the mat."

"We trust you, Mr. Vivian," said Madame, with majestic pathos. "A wife, a mother trusts you. Placens uxus! Mater familiaris."

"I pledge my honour. This is the-no, no, not that way, not that way!"

The worthy couple, by mistake, no doubt, were proceeding towards the grand staircase, having missed the way to the hall door, and as the Prophet, following them up with almost unimaginable activity, drew near enough to drum the right direction into their backs, Lady Enid became visible on the landing above. Mr. Sagittarius perceived her.

"Why, it's Miss Minerv-" he began.

"This way, this way!" cried the Prophet, wheeling them round and driving them, but always like a thorough gentleman, towards the square.

"Then she leads a double life, too!" said Mr. Sagittarius, solemnly, fixing his strained eyes upon the Prophet.

"She? Who?" said Madame, sharply.

She had not seen Lady Enid.

"All of us, my love, all of us," returned her husband, as the Prophet succeeded in shepherding them on to the pavement.

"Good-bye," he cried.

With almost inconceivable rapidity he shut the door. As he did so two vague echoes seemed to faint on his ear. One was male, a dreamlike-"First post, Thursday!" The other was female, a fairylike-"Jactum alea sunt."

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