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   Chapter 9 THE PROPHET BEGINS TO CARRY OUT HIS DIRECTIONS

The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 21809

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


"Mr. Ferdinand," said the Prophet the same evening, after he had dressed for dinner, "what has become of the telescope?"

He spoke in a low voice, not unlike that of a confirmed conspirator, and glanced rather furtively around him, as if afraid of being overheard.

"I have removed it, sir, according to your orders," replied Mr. Ferdinand, also displaying some uneasiness.

"Yes, yes. Where have you placed it?"

"Well, sir, I understood you to say I might throw it in Piccadilly, if I so wished."

The Prophet suddenly displayed relief.

"I see. You have done so."

"Well, no, sir."

The Prophet's face fell.

"Then where is it?"

"Well, sir, for the moment I have set it in the butler's pantry."

"Indeed!"

"I thought it might be of use there, sir," continued Mr. Ferdinand, in some confusion, which, however, was not noticed by the Prophet. "Of great use to-to Gustavus and me in-in our duties, sir."

"Quite so, quite so," returned the Prophet, abstractedly.

"Did you wish it to be taken to the drawing-room again, sir?"

The Prophet started.

"Certainly not," he said. "On no account. As you very rightly say-a butler's pantry is the place for a telescope. It can be of great service there."

His fervour surprised Mr. Ferdinand, who began to wonder whether, by any chance, his master knew of the Lord Chancellor's agreeable-looking second-cook. After pausing a moment respectfully, Mr. Ferdinand was about to decamp when the Prophet checked him with a gesture.

"One moment, Mr. Ferdinand!"

"Sir?"

"One moment!"

Mr. Ferdinand stood still. The Prophet cleared his throat, arranged his tie, and then said, with an air of very elaborate nonchalance,-

"At what time do you generally go to bed, Mr. Ferdinand, when you don't sit up?"

"Sometimes at one time, sir, and sometimes at another."

"That's rather ambiguous."

"I beg pardon, sir."

"What is your usual hour for being quite-that is, entirely in bed."

"Entirely in bed, sir?"

Mr. Ferdinand's fine bass voice vibrated with surprise.

"Yes. Not partially in bed, but really and truly in bed?"

"Well, sir," returned Mr. Ferdinand, with decided dignity, "when I am in bed, sir, I am."

"And when's that?"

"By twelve, sir."

"I thought as much," cried the Prophet, with slightly theatrical solicitude. "You sit up too late, Mr. Ferdinand."

"I hope, sir, that I-"

"That's what makes you so pale, Mr. Ferdinand, and delicate."

"Delicate, sir!" cried Mr. Ferdinand, who had in fact been hopelessly robust from the cradle, totally incapable of acquiring even the most universal complaints, and, moreover, miraculously exempt from that well-recognised affliction of the members of his profession so widely known as "butler's feet."

"Yes," said the Prophet, emphatically. "You should be in bed, thoroughly in bed, by a quarter to eleven. And Gustavus too! He is young, and the young can't be too careful. Begin to-night, Mr. Ferdinand. I speak for your health's sake, believe me."

So saying the Prophet hurried away, leaving Mr. Ferdinand almost as firmly rooted to the Turkey carpet with surprise as if he had been woven into the pattern at birth, and never unpicked in later years.

At ten that evening the Prophet, having escaped early from his dinner on some extravagant plea of sudden illness or second gaiety, stood in the small and sober passage of the celebrated Tintack Club and inquired anxiously for Mr. Robert Green.

"Yes, sir. Mr. Green is upstairs in the smoke-room," said the functionary whom the club grew under glass for the benefit of the members and their friends.

"Sam, show this gentleman to Mr. Green."

Sam, who was a red-faced child in buttons, with a man's walk and the back of one who knew as much as most people, obeyed this command, and ushered the Prophet into a room with a sealing-wax red paper, in which Robert Green was sitting alone, smoking a large cigar and glancing at the "stony-broke edition" of an evening paper. He greeted the Prophet with his usual unaffected cordiality, offered him every drink that had yet been invented, and, on his refusal of them all, handed him a cigar and a matchbox, and whistled "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-av" at him in the most friendly manner possible.

"Bob," said the Prophet, taking a very long time to light the cigar, "what, in your opinion, is the exact meaning of the term honour?"

Mr. Green's cheerful, though slightly belated, face assumed an expression of genial betwaddlement.

"Oh, well, Hen," he said, "exact meaning you know's not so easy. But-hang it, we all understand the thing, eh, without sticking it down in words. What?"

"I don't, Bob," rejoined the Prophet, in the tone of a man at odds with several consciences. "In what direction does honour lie?"

"It don't lie at all, old chap," said Mr. Green, with the decided manner which had made him so universally esteemed in yeomanry circles.

The Prophet began to look very much distressed.

"Look here, Bob, I'll put it in this way," he said. "Would an honourable man feel bound to keep a promise?"

"Rather."

"Yes, but would he feel bound to keep two promises?"

"Rather, if he'd made 'em."

"Suppose he had!"

"Go ahead, Hen, I'm supposing," said Mr. Green, beginning to pucker his brows and stare very hard indeed in the endeavour to keep the supposition fixed firmly in his head.

"And, further, suppose that these two promises were diametrically opposed to one another."

Mr. Green stuck out one leg, looked obliquely at the carpet, pressed his lips together and nodded.

"So that if he fulfilled them both he'd have to break them both-"

"Stop a sec! Gad, I've lost it! Start again, Hen!"

"No, I mean so that if he didn't break one he would be forced to break the other. Have you got that?"

"Stop a bit! Don't believe I have. Let's see!"

He moved his lips silently, repeating the Prophet's words.

"Yes. I've got that all right now," he said, after three minutes of strenuous mental exertion.

"Well, what would you say of him?"

"That he was a damned fool."

The Prophet looked very much upset.

"No, no, Bob, I meant to him. What would you say to him?"

"That he was a damned fool."

The Prophet began to appear thoroughly broken down. However, he still stuck to his interpellation.

"Very well, Bob," he said, with unutterable resignation-as of a toad beneath the harrow-"but, putting all that aside-"

"Give us a chance, Hen! I've got to shunt all that, have I?"

"Yes, at least all you would say of, and to, the man."

"Oh, only that. Wait a bit! Yes, I've done that. Drive on now!"

"Putting all that aside, what should you advise the man to do?"

"Not to be such a damned fool again."

"No, no! I mean about the two promises?"

"What about 'em?"

"Which would his sense of honour compel him to keep?"

"I shouldn't think such a damned fool'd got a sense of honour."

The Prophet winced, but he stuck with feverish obstinacy to his point.

"Yes, Bob, he had."

"I don't believe it, Hen, 'pon my word I don't. You'll always find that damned f-"

"Bob, I must beg you to take it from me. He had. Now which promise should he keep?"

"Who'd he made 'em to?"

"Who?" said the Prophet, wavering.

"Yes."

"One to-to a very near and dear relative, the other to-well, Bob to two comparative strangers."

"What sort of strangers."

"The sort of strangers who-who live beside a river, and who-who mix principally with-well, in fact, with architects and their wives."

"Rum sort of strangers?"

"They are decidedly."

"Oh, then, you know 'em?"

"That's not the point," exclaimed the Prophet, hastily. "The point is which promise is to be kept."

"I should say the one made to the relative. Wait a bit, though! Yes, I should say that."

The Prophet breathed a sigh of relief. But some dreadful sense of honesty within him compelled him to add,-

"I forgot to say that he'd pledged his honour to the architects-that is, to the strangers who lived beside a river."

"What-and not pledged it to the relative?"

"Well, no."

"Then he ought to stick to the promise he'd pledged his honour over, of course. Nice for the relative! The man's a damned fool, Hen. Do have a drink, old chap."

Thus did Mr. Robert Green drive the Prophet to take the first decisive step that was to lead to so many complications,-the step towards Mr. Ferdinand's pantry.

At precisely a quarter to eleven p.m. the Prophet stood upon his doorstep and, very gently indeed, inserted his latchkey into the door. A shaded lamp was burning in the deserted hall, where profound silence reigned. Clear was the night and starry. As the Prophet turned to close the door he perceived the busy crab, and the thought of his beloved grandmother, sinking now to rest on the second floor all unconscious of the propinquity of the scorpion, the contiguity of the serpent, filled his expressive eyes with tears. He shut the door, stood in the hall and listened. He heard a chair crack, the ticking of a clock. There was no other sound, and he felt certain that Mr. Ferdinand and Gustavus had heeded his anxious medical directions and gone entirely to bed betimes, leaving the butler's pantry free for the nocturnal operations of the victim of Madame. For he recognised that she was the guiding spirit of the family that dwelt beside the Mouse. He might have escaped out of the snare of Mr. Sagittarius, but Madame was a fowler who would hold him fast till she had satisfied herself once and for all whether it were indeed possible to dwell in the central districts, within reach of the Army and Navy heaven in Victoria Street, and yet remain a prophet. Yes, he must now work for the information of her ambitious soul. He sighed deeply and went softly up the stairs. His chamber was on the same floor as Mrs. Merillia's, and, as he neared her door, he rose instinctively upon his toes and, grasping the tails of his evening coat firmly with his left hand, to prevent any chance rustling of their satin lining, and bearing his George the Third silver candlestick steadily to control any clattering of its extinguisher, he moved on rather like a thief who was also a trained ballerina, holding his breath and pressing his lips together in a supreme agony of dumbness.

Unluckily he tripped in the raised pattern of the carpet, the candlestick uttered a silver note, his pent-in breath escaped with a loud gulp, and Mrs. Merillia's delicate voice cried out from behind her shut door,-

"Hennessey! Hennessey!"

The Prophet bit his lip and went at once into her room.

Mrs. Merillia looked simply charming in bed, with her long and elegant head shaded by a beautiful muslin helmet trimmed with lace, and a delicious embroidered wrapper round her shoulders. The Prophet stood beside her, shading the candle-flame with his hand.

"Well, grannie,

dear," he said, "what is it? You ought to be asleep."

"I never sleep before twelve. Have you had a pleasant dinner?"

"Very. Stanyer Phelps, the American, was there and very witty. And we had a marvellous supreme de volaille. Everybody asked after you."

Mrs. Merillia nodded, like an accustomed queen who receives her due. She knew very well that she was the most popular old woman in London, knew it too well to think about it.

"Well, good-night, grannie."

The Prophet bent to kiss her, his heart filled with compunction at the thought of the promise he was about to break. It seemed to him almost more than sacrilegious to make of this dear and honoured ornament of old age a vehicle for the satisfaction of the vulgar ambitions and disagreeable curiosity of the couple who dwelt beside the Mouse.

"Good-night, my dear boy."

She kissed him, then added,-

"You like Lady Enid, don't you?"

"Very much."

"So does Robert Green. He thinks her such a thoroughly sensible girl."

"Bob! Does he?" said the Prophet, concealing a slight smile.

"Yes. If you want her to get on with you, Hennessey, you should come up to tea when she is here."

"I couldn't to-day, grannie."

"You were really busy?"

"Very busy indeed."

"I suppose you only saw her for a moment on the stairs?"

"That was all."

It was true, for Lady Enid had scarcely stayed to speak to the Prophet, having hurried out in the hope of discovering who were the "two parties" he had been entertaining on the ground floor.

Mrs. Merillia dropped the subject.

"Good-night, Hennessey," she said. "Go to bed at once. You look quite tired. I am so thankful you have given up that horrible astronomy."

The Prophet did not reply, but, as he went out of the room, he knew, for the first time, what criminals with consciences feel like when they are engaged in following their dread profession.

As he walked across the landing he heard a clock strike eleven. He started, hastened into his room, tore off his coat, replaced it with a quilted smoking-jacket, sprang lightly to his table, seized a planisphere, or star-map, which he had succeeded in obtaining that night from a small working astronomer's shop in the Edgeware Road, and, mindful of the terms of his oath and the decided opinion of Robert Green, scurried hastily, but very gingerly, down the stairs. This time Mrs. Merillia did not hear him. She had indeed become absorbed in a new romance, written by a very rising young Montenegrin who was just then making some stir in the literary circles of the elect.

Very surreptitiously the Prophet tripped across the hall and reached the stout door which gave access to the servants' quarters. But here he paused. Although he had lived in Mrs. Merillia's most comfortable home for at least fifteen years, he had actually never once penetrated beyond this door. It had never occurred to him to do so. Often he had approached it. Quite recently, when Mrs. Fancy Quinglet had broken into tears on the refusal of Sir Tiglath Butt to burst according to her prediction, he had handed her to this very portal. But he had never passed through it, nor did he know what lay beyond. No doubt there was a kitchen, very probably the mysterious region of watery activities commonly known as a scullery, quite certainly a butler's pantry. But where each separate sanctum lay, and what should be the physiognomy of each one the Prophet had not the vaguest idea. As he turned the handle of the door he felt like Sir Henry Stanley, when that intrepid explorer first set foot among the leafy habitations of the dwarfs.

As the door opened the Prophet found himself in a large apartment whose walls were decorated with the efforts of those great painters who feed the sentimental imaginations of the masses in the beautiful Christmas numbers of our artistic day. Enchanting little girls and exceedingly human dogs observed his entrance from every hand, while such penetrating and suggestive legends as "Don't bite!" "Mustn't!" "Naughty!" "Would 'ums?" and the like, filled his mind with the lofty thoughts so suitable to the Christmas season. Over the mantelpiece was a Cook's Almanac for the Home, decorated in bright colours, a Butler's own book, bound in claret-coloured linen, and a large framed photograph of Francatelli, that immortal chef whose memory is kept green in so many kitchens, and whose recipes are still followed as are followed the footprints of the great ones in the Everlasting Sands of Time. One corner of the room Gustavus had made his own, and here might be seen his tasteful what-not and his little library-neatly arranged unabridged farthing editions of Drummond's Ascent of Man, Mill's Liberty, Crampton's Origin of Self-Respect, Barlow's A Philosophical Examination into the Art and Practice of Tipping and Receiving Tips, and other volumes suitable for an intellectual footman's reading. An eight-day clock, which was carefully and lovingly wound up by the prudent Mrs. Fancy Quinglet every morning and evening, snored peacefully in a recess by the hearth, and, from a crevice near the window, the bright, intelligent eyes of a couple of well-developed black-beetles-mother and son-contentedly surveyed the cheerful scene.

The Prophet, after a moment's pause of contemplation, passed on through a swing door, covered with green baize, and down some stairs to the inner courts of this interesting region. This time he came to anchor in a room which, he thought, might well have been a butler's pantry had it contained a large-sized telescope. It was in fact the parlour set apart for the use of the kitchen and scullery maids, and was brightly fitted up with a dresser, a cupboard for skewers, a rolling-pin, a basting machine, and other similar adjuncts. It gave on to the kitchen, in which the cat of the house was enjoying well-earned slumber in the attitude of a black ball. So far his exploring tour had quite fulfilled the rather vague expectations of the Prophet, but he now began to feel anxious. Time was passing on and he had sworn to be at the telescope by eleven sharp. He had, therefore, already slightly fractured his oath, and he had no desire to earn the anathema of all such men as Robert Green by breaking it into small pieces. Where was the butler's pantry? He glanced eagerly round the kitchen, perceived a door, passed through it, and found himself confronted by a sink. He had gained the scullery, but not his goal. To the right of the sink was yet another door through which the Prophet, who carried the planisphere in one hand, the George the Third candlestick in the other, rather excitedly debouched into a good-sized passage. As he did so he heard the muffled alto voice of the eight-day clock proclaim that it was a quarter-past eleven. Feeling that he was now upon the point of breaking both the promises of the damned fool, the Prophet hastened along the passage, darted through the first outlet, and found himself abruptly face to back with what appeared at first glance to be an enormously broad and bow-legged dwarf, with a bald head and a black tail coat, which, in an attitude of savage curiosity, was gazing through a gigantic instrument, whose muzzle projected from an open window into a spacious area. So great was the Prophet's surprise, so supreme the shock to his whole nervous system occasioned by this unexpected encounter, that he did not utter a cry. His amazement carried him into that terrible region which lies beyond the realms of speech. He simply stood quite still and gazed at the bow-legged dwarf, which, in its turn, continued to gaze savagely through the gigantic instrument into the area. Not for perhaps three or four minutes did the Prophet realise that this dwarf was merely an ingeniously shortened form of Mr. Ferdinand, who, with his legs very wide apart, and making two accurate right angles at their respective knee-joints, his head thrown well back, and his arms arranged in two perfect capital V's, with the elbows pointing directly at the walls on either side of him, had been busily engaged for the last hour and a quarter in trying to focus firstly the Lord Chancellor's house on the opposite side of the square, and secondly the pleasant-looking second-cook in it. That his chivalrous efforts had not yet been crowned with complete success will be understood when we say that he had seen during his first half-hour of contemplation nothing at all, during his second half-hour the left-hand top star of the Great Bear, and finally the fourth spike from the end of the iron railing which enclosed the square garden, at which he had been gazing closely for precisely fifteen minutes and a half when the Prophet darted into the pantry.

Having at length recovered from his shock of surprise sufficiently to realise that the enormous and immobile dwarf was Mr. Ferdinand, and that Mr. Ferdinand was not yet aware of his presence, the Prophet resolved to beat a rapid and noiseless retreat. He carried this resolve into execution by turning sharply round, knocking his head against a plate chest, firing the George the Third candlestick into the passage, and letting the planisphere go into the china jar of "Butler's own special pomade" which Mr. Ferdinand kept always open for use upon the pantry table.

To say that Mr. Ferdinand ceased from looking through the telescope for the Lord Chancellor's second-cook at this juncture would, perhaps, not convey quite a fair idea of the activity which he could on occasion display even at his somewhat advanced age. It might be more just to state that, without wasting any precious time in useless elongation, he described an exceedingly rapid circular movement, still preserving the shortened form of himself which had so deceived and startled his master, and brought his eye from the orifice of the telescope to a level with the Prophet's knees exactly at the moment when the Prophet rebounded from the plate chest into the centre of the apartment.

"Oh, is it you, Mr. Ferdinand?" said the Prophet, controlling every symptom of anguish, with the exception of a rapid flutter of the eyelids. "I was looking for-for a bradawl."

The Prophet's choice of this useful little implement as the reason for his presence in Mr. Ferdinand's special sanctum was prompted by the fact that, just as he was speaking, he happened to see a bradawl lying upon a neighbouring knife cupboard in the company of a corkscrew.

"And here, I see, is just what I want," he added calmly.

So far he had displayed extraordinary composure, but at this point he made a slight mistake, for he picked up the corkscrew and sauntered quietly away with it into the darkness, leaving Mr. Ferdinand still in the attitude of a Toby jug, the planisphere still head downwards in the butler's own special pomade, and the George the Third candlestick stretched at full length upon the passage floor.

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