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   Chapter 13 THE PROPHET IS INTERVIEWED BY TWO KIDS

The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 22211

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Mr. Ferdinand met the Prophet in the hall.

"I have done as you directed, sir," he said respectfully.

"As I directed, Mr. Ferdinand? I was not aware that I ever directed anybody," replied the Prophet, suspecting irony.

"I understood you to say, sir, that if any more telegrams was to arrive, I was to burn them, sir."

"Telegrams! Good Heavens! You don't mean to say that-"

"There has been some seventeen or eighteen, sir. I have burnt them, sir, to ashes, according to your orders."

"Quite right, Mr. Ferdinand," said the Prophet, putting his hand up to his hair, to feel if it were turning grey. "Quite right. How is-how, I say, is Mrs. Merillia?"

"Well, Master Hennessey, she's not dead yet."

And Mr. Ferdinand, with a contorted countenance moved towards the servants' hall.

The Prophet stood quite still with his hat and coat on for several minutes. An amazing self-possession had come to him, the unnatural self-possession of despair. He felt quite calm, as the statue of a dead alderman feels on the embankment of its native city. Nothing seemed to matter at all. He might have been Marcus Aurelius-till a loud double knock came to the front door. Then he might have been any dangerous lunatic, ripe for a strait waistcoat. Mr. Ferdinand approached. The Prophet faced him.

"Kindly retire, Mr. Ferdinand," he said in a very quiet voice. "I will answer that knock."

Mr. Ferdinand retired rather rapidly. The knock was repeated. The Prophet opened the door. A telegraph boy, about two and a half feet high, stood outside upon the step.

"Telegram, sir," he said in a thin voice.

"Give it to me, my lad," replied the Prophet.

The small boy handed the telegram and turned to depart.

"Wait a moment, my lad," said the Prophet, very gently.

The small boy waited.

"Do you wish to be strangled, my lad?" asked the Prophet.

The small boy tried to recoil, but his terror rooted him firmly to the spot.

"Do all the other boys at the office wish to be strangled?" continued the Prophet. "Come, my lad, why don't you answer me?"

"No, sir," whispered the small boy, passing his little tongue over his pale lips.

"Very well, my lad, the next boy who brings a telegram to this house will be strangled, do you understand that?"

"Yes, sir," sighed the small boy, like a terror-stricken Zephyr.

"That's right. Good-night, my lad."

The Prophet closed the street door very softly, and the small boy dropped fainting on the pavement and was carried to the nearest hospital on a stretcher by two dutiful policemen.

Meanwhile the Prophet opened the telegram and read as follows:-

"Insufferable insolence. How dare you; shall pay dearly; with you to-morrow first 'bus.

"JUPITER AND MADAME SAGITTARIUS."

"Mr. Ferdinand!" called the Prophet.

"Yes, sir."

"I am about to write a telegram. Gustavus will take it to the office."

"Yes, sir."

The Prophet went into the library and wrote these words on a telegraph form:-

"Jupiter Sagittarius, Sagittarius Lodge, Crampton St. Peter, N. Your life is in danger; keep where you are; another telegram may destroy you. Grave news.

"VIVIAN."

The Prophet gave this telegram to Gustavus and then prepared to go upstairs to his grandmother. As he mounted towards the drawing-room he murmured to himself over and over again,-

"Sir Tiglath-Malkiel! Malkiel-Sir Tiglath!"

He found Mrs. Merillia very prostrate. It seemed that the telegraph boys had very soon worn through the cotton-wool with which the knocker had been shrouded, and that the incessant noise of their efforts to attract attention at the door had quite unnerved the gallant old lady. Nevertheless, her own condition was the last thing she thought of.

"I don't mind for myself, Hennessey," she said. "But it is very sad after all these years of respect and even, I think, a certain popularity, to be considered a nuisance by one's square. We are hopelessly embroiled with the Duchess of Camberwell, and the Lord Chancellor has sent over five times to explain the different laws and regulations that we are breaking. I don't see how you can go to his Reception to-night, really."

"I am not going, grannie," said the Prophet, overwhelmed with contrition. "I cannot go in any case."

"Why not?"

"I-I have some work to do at home."

He avoided the glance of her bright eyes, and continued.

"Grannie, I am deeply grieved at all you have gone through to-day. Believe me it has not been my fault-at least not entirely. I may have been injudicious, but I never-never-"

He paused, quite overcome with emotion.

"I don't know what will happen if the telegrams go on till midnight," said Mrs. Merillia. "The Duke of Camberwell is a very violent man, since he had that sunstroke at the last Jubilee, and I shouldn't wonder if he-"

"Grannie, there will not be any more telegrams."

"But you said that before, Hennessey."

"And I say it again. There will not be any more. I have just informed the messenger that the next boy who knocks will certainly be-well, destroyed."

Mrs. Merillia breathed a sigh of relief.

"I am so thankful, Hennessey. Are you dining out to-night?"

"No, grannie. I don't feel very well. I have a headache. I shall go and lie down for a little."

"Yes, do. Everybody is lying down; Fancy, the upper housemaid, the cook. Even Gustavus, they tell me, is trying to snatch a little uneasy repose on his what-not. It has been a terrible day."

Mrs. Merillia lay back and closed her eyes, and the Prophet, overwhelmed with remorse, retired to his room, lay down and stared desperately at nothing for half an hour. He then ate, with a very poor appetite, a morsel of dinner and prepared to take, if possible, a short nap before starting on the labours of the night. As he got up from the dining table to go upstairs he said to Mr. Ferdinand,-

"By the way, Mr. Ferdinand, if I should come into the pantry again to-night, don't be alarmed. I may chance to require a bradawl as I did last night. Kindly leave one out, in case I should. But you need not sit up."

As the Prophet said the last words he looked Mr. Ferdinand full in the face. The butler's eyes fell.

"Thank you, Master Hennessey, I shall be glad to get to bed-entirely to bed-in good time. We are all a bit upset in the kit-that is the hall to-day."

"Just so. Retire to rest at once if you like."

"Thank you, sir."

"Gustavus," said Mr. Ferdinand, a moment later in the servants' hall, "you are a man of the world, I believe."

Gustavus roused himself on his what-not.

"I am, Mr. Ferdinand," he replied, in a pale and exhausted manner.

"Then tell me, Gustavus, have you ever lived in service with a gentleman who was partial to a bradawl-of a night, you understand?"

"No, never, Mr. Ferdinand. The nearest to it ever I got was the Bishop of Clapham."

"Explain yourself, Gustavus, I beg."

"He used to ask for a nip sometimes before retiring, Mr. Ferdinand."

"A nip, Gustavus?"

"Warm water, with a slice of toast in it. But he was only what they call a suburban bishop, Mr. Ferdinand."

"Ah! a nip is hardly on all fours with a bradawl, Gustavus."

"P'r'aps not, Mr. Ferdinand, but it's the nearest ever I got to it."

Mr. Ferdinand said no more, but when he retired to rest that night he double-locked his door, and dreamt of bradawls till he woke, unrefreshed, the next morning to find the area full of telegrams.

Meanwhile the Prophet was conscientiously fulfilling his promise and keeping the oath he had pledged his honour over, although he had to work under a grave disadvantage in the total loss of his planisphere, or star-map.

He entered the butler's pantry precisely on the stroke of eleven, and found it, to his great relief, untenanted. The dwarf was no longer at the telescope, and the silence in the region dedicated to Mrs. Merillia's menials was profound. The night, too, was clear and starry, propitious for prophetic labours, and as the Prophet gazed out upon the deserted square through the open window a strange peace descended upon his fevered soul. Nature, with all her shining mysteries, her distant reticences and revelations, calmed the turmoil within him. He looked upon the area railings and upon the sky, and smiled.

Then he looked for the star-map. He perceived in a very prominent position upon a silver salver, the bradawl laid out, according to order, by the obedient Mr. Ferdinand. He perceived also the open pot of "Butler's Own Special Pomade," but the planisphere had been removed from it. Where could it have been bestowed? The Prophet instituted a careful search. He explored cupboards, drawers-such at least as were unlocked-in vain. He glanced into a silver teapot reposing on a shelf, between the pages of an almanac hanging on the wall, among some back numbers of the Butler's Gazette, which were lying in a corner. But the planisphere was nowhere to be found, and at last in despair he resolved to do without it, and to trust to his fairly accurate knowledge of the heavens. He, therefore, took up his station by the window and proceeded to extract from the pocket of his smoking-jacket the account-book in which he had dotted down the directions of "Madame and self." They were very vague, for his dots had been agitated. Still, by the help of the George the Third candlestick, in which was a lighted taper, the Prophet was able to make out enough to refresh his memory. He was to begin by placing his beloved grandmother in the claws of the crab. Leaning upon the sill of the window he found the crab and-breathing a short prayer for forgiveness-committed his dear relation to its offices. He then retreated and, assuming very much the position of Mr. Ferdinand, applied his right eye to the telescope, at the same time holding his left eye firmly shut with the forefinger of his left hand. At once the majesty of the starry heavens burst upon him in all its glory.

Exactly at half-past one o'clock, two hours and a half later, the enthralled Prophet heard a low whistle which seemed to reach him from the square. He withdrew his fascinated right eye from the telescope and endeavoured to use it in an ordinary manner, but he could at first see nothing. The low whistle was repeated. It certainly did come from the square, and the Prophet approached the open window and once more tried to compel the eye that had looked so long upon the stars to gaze with understanding upon the earth. This time he perceived a black thing, like a blot, about six feet high, beyond the area railings. From this blot came a third whistle. The Prophet, who was still dazed by the fascination of star-gazing, mechanically whistled in reply, whereupon the blot whispered at him huskily,-

"At it again, are you?"

"Yes," whispered the Prophet, also huskily, for the night air was cold. "But how should you know?"

Indeed he wondered; and it seemed to him as if the blot were some strange night thing that must have companioned him, invisibly, when he kept his nocturnal watches in the drawing-room, and that now partially revealed itse

lf to him in the, perhaps, more acutely occult region of the basement.

"How should I know!" rejoined the blot with obvious, though very hoarse, irony. "Whatever d'you take me for?"

The Prophet began to wonder, but before he had gone on wondering for more than about half a minute, the blot continued,-

"She's gone to bed."

"I know she has," said the Prophet, presuming that the blot, which seemed instinct with all knowledge, was referring to his grandmother.

"But she knows you're at it again," continued the blot.

The Prophet started violently and leaned upon the window-sill.

"No! How can that be?" he ejaculated.

"Ho! Them girls knows everything, especially the old uns," said the blot, with an audible chuckle.

"Good gracious!" gasped the Prophet, overwhelmed at this mysterious visitant's familiar description of his revered grandmother.

"Have you seen her to-night?" inquired the blot, controlling its merriment.

"Yes," said the Prophet. "With the Crab."

"What!" cried the blot, in obvious astonishment. "Them instruments must be wonderful sight-carriers."

"They are," exclaimed the Prophet, with almost mystic enthusiasm. "Wonderful. I have seen her with the Crab distinctly."

"Ah! well, I told her she ought to keep away from it," continued the blot.

"Did you?" said the Prophet, with increasing surprise. "But how could she?"

"Ah! that's just it! She couldn't."

"No, of course not."

"She was drawn right to it."

"She was. It wasn't her fault. It was the Crab's."

"A pity it was dressed."

"What?"

"I say it's a pity 'twas dressed."

"What was dressed?"

"What! why, the Crab!"

"The Crab-dressed!"

"Ay. They're a deal safer not dressed."

"Are they?"

"She knows it too."

"Does she?"

"But there-them women likes a spice of danger. She's in a nice state now, you bet. Not much sleep for her, I'll lay. Well, I tried to keep her from it, so you needn't blame me."

"I won't," said the Prophet, feeling completely dazed.

"Well, go'-night. I'm off round the square."

"Good-night," said the Prophet.

Suddenly a blinding flash of light dazzled his eyes. He covered them with his hands. When he could see again the blot was gone.

Although he was retired to rest that night when the clock struck three, the Prophet did not sleep. His nervous system was in a condition of acute excitement. His brain felt like a burning ball, and the palms of his hands were hot with fever. For the spirit of prophecy was upon him once more, and he was bound fast in the golden magic of the stars. Like the morphia maniac who, after valiant fasting, returning to his drug, feels its influence the stronger for his abstinence from it, the Prophet was conscious that the heavens held more power, more meaning for him because, for a while, he had intended to neglect them. He was ravaged by their mystery, their majesty and revelation.

When he came down in the morning pale, dishevelled, but informed by a curious dignity, he was met at once by Mr. Ferdinand.

"I have cleared the area, sir," said the functionary.

"The area, Mr. Ferdinand. What of?"

"Telegrams, sir. The boys must have thrown 'em down without knocking."

"Very probably," replied the Prophet. "Their comrade was right. They did not wish to be strangled."

"No, sir. And I have placed them in a basket on the breakfast table, sir, while awaiting your orders."

"Quite right, Mr. Ferdinand. By the way, here is the bradawl. Leave it out again to-night in case I have need of it."

So saying, the Prophet handed the bradawl, which he had craftily conveyed from the pantry on the previous night, to the astonished butler and walked swiftly into the breakfast-room. The basket of telegrams was set outside beside a fried sole and the "equipage" which Madame had so much admired, and, while he sipped his tea, the Prophet opened the wires one by one. They were fraught with terror and dismay. Evidently his mysterious warning had thrown the worthies who dwelt beside the Mouse into a condition of the very gravest amazement and alarm, and they had, despite the Prophet's final injunction, spent the remaining telegraphic hours of the day in despatching wires of frantic inquiry to the square. Madame, in particular, was evidently much upset, and expressed her angry agitation in a dead language that seemed positively to live again in fear and novelty of grammatical construction. Sir Tiglath had been a brilliant card to play in the prophetic game, although he had not achieved the Prophet's purpose of stopping the telegraphic flood.

While the Prophet was simultaneously finishing the fried sole and the perusal of the final wire Mr. Ferdinand entered, in a condition of obvious astonishment that might well have cost him his place.

"If you please, sir," he said, in an up-and-down voice, "if you please there are two-two-two-"

"Two what? Be more explicit, Mr. Ferdinand."

"Two-well, sir, kids at the door waiting for you to see them, sir."

"Two kids! What-from the goat show that's going on at the Westminster Aquarium!" cried the Prophet in great surprise.

"Maybe, sir. I can't say, indeed, sir. Am I to show them in, sir?"

"Show them in! Are you gone mad, Mr. Ferdinand? They must be driven out at once. If Mrs. Merillia were to see them, she might be greatly alarmed. I'll-I'll-follow me, Mr. Ferdinand, closely."

So saying the Prophet stepped valiantly into the hall. There, by the umbrella stand, stood two small children, boy and girl, very neatly dressed in a sailor suit and a grey merino. The little boy held in his hand a large round straw hat, on the blue riband of which was inscribed in letters of gold, "H.M.S. Hercules." The little girl wore a pleasant pigtail tied with a riband of the same hue.

The meaning of Mr. Ferdinand's vulgar and misleading slang suddenly dawned on the Prophet. He cast a look of very grave rebuke on Mr. Ferdinand, then, walking up to the little boy and girl he said in his most ingratiating manner,-

"Well, my little ones, what can I do for you?"

"Not so little, if you please, Mr. Vivian," replied the boy in a piping, but very self-possessed voice. "Can we see you in private for a moment?"

"If you please, Mr. Vivian," added the little girl. "Si sit prudentium."

"Dentia, Corona," corrected the little boy.

The Prophet turned white to the very lips.

"Certainly, certainly," he said in a violently furtive manner. "Come this way, my children. Mr. Ferdinand, if Mrs. Merillia should inquire for me, you will say that I'm busy writing-no, no, just busy-very busy."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm not to be disturbed. This way, my little ones."

"Not so little, Mr. Vivian," piped again the small boy, trotting obediently, with his sister, into the Prophet's library, the door of which was immediately closed behind them.

"Well, I'm-" said Mr. Ferdinand. "Kids in the library! I am-Gustavus!"

He rushed frenetically towards the servants' hall to confer upon the situation with his intellectual subordinate.

Meanwhile the Prophet was closeted with the two kids.

"Pray sit down," he said, very nervously, and smiling forcibly. "Pray sit down, my dears."

The kids obeyed with aplomb, keeping their large and strained eyes fixed upon the Prophet.

"Is it Coronus and Capricorna?" continued the Prophet, with an effort after blithe familiarity. "Is it?"

"No," piped the little boy. "It isn't Coronus and Capricorna."

A marvellous sensation of relief invaded the Prophet.

"Thank Heaven!" he ejaculated in a sigh. "I thought it must be."

"It's Corona and Capricornus," continued the little boy. "And we've brought you a letter from pater familias."

"And mater familiaris," added the little girl.

"Milias, Corona," corrected the little boy. "Here it is, Mr. Vivian," he added, drawing a large missive from the breast of his blue-and-white sailor's blouse. "Pater and mater familias couldn't bring it themselves, because he said it wasn't safe for him to come, and she's lying down ill at what you sent to her. It wasn't kind of you, was it?"

So saying, he handed the missive to the Prophet, who took it anxiously.

"Would you like some cake, my lit-I mean, my dears, while I read this?"

"No, thank you. Cake is bad for us in the morning," replied the little boy. "You shouldn't eat it so early."

The Prophet was about to reply that he never did when it struck him that argument would probably be useless. He, therefore, hastened to open the letter, which proved to be from Mr. Sagittarius, and which ran as follows:-

"SIR,-Your terrible and mysterious wire, coming after your equally terrible and mysterious silence, has caused devastation in a hitherto peaceful and happy family. To what peril do you allude? What creature can there be so base as to wish to take my life merely on account of my sending you telegrams? Madame has been driven to despair by your announcement, and I, myself, although no ordinary man, am, very rightly and properly, going about in fear of my life since receipt of your last telegram. Under these circs, and being unable to wait upon you ourselves for a full explanation, we are sending our very life-blood to you-per rail and 'bus-with strict orders to bring you at once to the banks of the Mouse, there to confer with Madame and self and arrange such measures of precaution as are suited to the requirements of the situation as indicated by you.

"JUPITER SAGITTARIUS.

"P.S.-You are to bring with you, according to solemn oath, all prophecy concerning grandmother, Crab, etc., gathered up to date, together with full details of same's removal from the bottle, cutting of her first tooth, short-coating, going into skirts, putting of hair up, day of marriage and widowhood, illnesses-especially rashes-and so forth. Ab origino.

"MADAME SAGITTARIUS."

On reading this communication the Prophet felt that all further struggle was useless. Fate-cruel and remorseless Fate-had him in her grasp. He could only bow his head and submit to her horrible decrees. He could only go upstairs and at once prepare for the journey to the Mouse.

He laid the letter down and got up, fixing his eyes upon the kids, who sat solemnly awaiting his further procedure.

"You-I suppose you know, my little ones, what this-what you have to do?" he said.

"Not so little, if you please, Mr. Vivian," returned the boy. "Yes, we've got to take you with us to see pater familias."

"And mater familiar-familias," added the little girl.

"I see-you know," said the Prophet, in a despairing voice. "Very well. Wait here quietly-very quietly, while I go and get ready."

"And please don't forget the Crab and grandmother, rashes, et ceterus," said the little girl.

"Tera Corona," piped her brother.

"I won't," said the Prophet. "I will not."

And he tottered out of the room, carrying the Sagittarius letter in his hand.

In the hall he paused for a moment, holding on to the balusters and re-reading his directions. Then he crawled slowly up the stairs and sought his grandmother's room.

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