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   Chapter 14 THE PROPHET JOURNEYS TO THE MOUSE

The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 17067

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Mrs. Merillia was just beginning to recover from the prostration of the preceding day when the Prophet came into the room where she was seated with Mrs. Fancy Quinglet. She looked up at him almost brightly, but started when she saw how agitated he seemed.

"Grannie," said the Prophet, abruptly, "you would tell me anything, wouldn't you?"

"Why, of course, my dear boy. But what about?"

"About-about yourself?"

Mrs. Merillia looked very much astonished.

"There is nothing to hide, Hennessey," she said with gentle dignity. "You know that."

"I do, I do," cried the Prophet, passionately. "Yours has been the best, the sweetest life the world has ever known!"

"Well, I don't wish to imply-"

"But I do, grannie, I do. Can Fancy leave us for a moment?"

"Certainly. Fancy, you can go to your tatting."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Mr Hennessey has something to explain to me."

"Oh, ma'am, the houses that have been broke up by explainings!"

And with this, as the Prophet thought, appallingly appropriate exclamation, Mrs. Fancy hurried feverishly from the room.

"Now what is the question you wish to ask me, Hennessey?" said Mrs. Merillia, with a soft dignity.

"There are-one moment-there are eight questions, grannie," responded the Prophet, shrinking visibly before the dread necessity by which he found himself confronted.

"Eight! So many?"

"Yes, oh, indeed, yes."

"Well, my dear, and what are they?"

"The first is-is-grannie, when were you removed from-from the bottle?"

A very delicate flush crept into Mrs. Merillia's charming cheeks.

"The bottle, Hennessey! Never, never!" she said, with a sort of pathetic indignation. "How could you suppose-I-the bottle-"

Her pretty old voice died away.

"Answered, darling grannie, answered!" ejaculated the Prophet. "Please-please don't! And now-your first tooth?"

"My first what!" cried Mrs. Merillia in almost terrified amazement.

"Tooth-when did you cut it?"

"I have no idea. Surely, Hennessey-"

"Answered, dearest grannie!" cried the Prophet, with gathering agitation. "Did you ever wear a short coat?"

"I-I'm not a man!"

"You didn't! Always a skirt?"

"Of course! Why-"

"And you're sixty-eight on the twentieth. So for sixty-eight years you've always worn a skirt. That's four."

"Four what? Are you-?"

"When did you put your hair up, grannie, darling?"

"My hair-never. You know I've always had a maid to do these things for me. Fancy-"

"Of course. You've never put your hair up. I might have known. You were married very young, weren't you?"

"Ah, yes. On my seventeenth birthday, and was left a widow in exactly two years' time. Your poor dear granf-"

"Thank you, grannie, thank you! Seven!"

"Seven what, Hennessey? One would th-"

"And now, dear grannie, tell me one thing, only one little thing more. About-that is, talking of rashes-"

"Rashers!"

"No, grannie, rashes-illnesses, you know, that take an epidemic form."

"Well, what about them? Surely there isn't an epidemic in the square?"

"How many have you had, grannie?"

"Where? Had what?"

"Here, anywhere in the square, grannie."

"Had what in the square?"

"Rashes."

"I! Have a rash in the square!"

"Exactly. Have you ever-an epidemic, you know?"

"I have an epidemic in Berkeley Square? You must be crazy, Hennessey!"

"Probably, very likely, grannie. But have you? Tell me quickly! Have you?"

"Certainly not! As if any gentlewoman-"

"Answered, grannie, answered! Eight!"

"Eight what?"

"Questions. Thank you, dearest grannie. I knew you'd tell me, I knew you would!"

And the Prophet rushed from the room, leaving Mrs. Merillia in a condition that cannot be described and that not all the subsequent ministrations of Mrs. Fancy Quinglet were able to alleviate.

Having reached the hall, the Prophet hastily put on his coat and hat and called Mr. Ferdinand to him.

"Mr. Ferdinand," he said, assuming a fixed and stony dignity to conceal his agitation and dismay, "I am leaving the house at once with the-the lady and gentleman who are in the library."

At this description of the kids Mr. Ferdinand was very nearly seized with convulsions. However, as he said nothing and merely wrung his large hands, the Prophet, after a slight pause, continued,-

"I may be away some time, so if Mrs. Merillia should make any inquiry, you will say that I have left to pay a visit to some friends."

"Yes, sir. Shall I tell Gustavus to pack your things?"

"Certainly not."

The Prophet was turning towards the library when Mr. Ferdinand added,-

"When shall we expect you back, sir? Am I to forward your letters?"

"No, no. I shall return in a few hours."

"Oh, I beg pardon, sir. And if any telegrams-"

"There will not be any. I am now going to answer the telegrams in person."

"Yes, sir."

"Come along, my children," cried the Prophet, putting his head into the library.

"Not your children, if you please, Mr. Vivian," replied the little boy. "Corona, come on."

"How do we go, my dears?" asked the Prophet, with an attempt at gaiety, and endeavouring to ignore the prostrated demeanour of Mr. Ferdinand, who was in waiting to open the hall door.

"By the purple 'bus as far as the Pork Butcher's Rest," piped the little boy-(at this point Mr. Ferdinand could not refrain from a slight exclamation)-"then we take the train to the Mouse, Mouse, Mouse."

"Mus, Mus, Mus," chanted the little girl.

As Mr. Ferdinand was unable to open the door, paralysis having apparently supervened, the Prophet did so, and the cheerful little party emerged upon the step to find Lady Enid Thistle in the very act of pressing the electric bell. When she beheld the vivacious trio, all agog for their morning's expedition, come thus suddenly upon her, she cried out musically,-

"Why, where are you off to?"

The Prophet was much embarrassed by the encounter.

"I am taking these lit"-he caught the staring eye of Capricornus-"these friends of mine for a little walk," he said.

"I'll come with you," said Lady Enid, with an almost Highland decision. "I've got something to say to you, and we can talk as we go."

She glanced very inquisitively indeed at the two children, who had begun to frisk at sight of the square all bathed in winter sunshine. The Prophet was very much upset.

"Don't you think-" he began.

"It will be delightful to have some exercise," she interrupted firmly. "Which way are you going?"

"Which way! Oh, to-towards-"

The Prophet stopped. He did not know from what point the purple 'bus started to gain the Pork Butcher's Rest. Capricornus hastened to inform him.

"We take the purple 'bus at the corner of Air Street," he piped.

"The purple 'bus!" cried Lady Enid. "The purple bus!"

She glanced searchingly at the Prophet.

"Ah!" she murmured, "so you are taking a purple 'bus to your double life!"

He could not deny it. They were now all walking forward in the sun and as the little Corona and Capricornus became speedily intent upon the wonders of this central district, Lady Enid and the Prophet were able to have a quiet word or two together.

"I came to tell you," she said, "that Mrs. Vane Bridgeman will expect you to-night at-"

"I am engaged at eleven," cried the Prophet, in despair at the imposition of this fresh burden upon his weary shoulders.

"I know. To the Lord Chancellor, but-"

"No. I have an engagement which I dare not break, at home."

"Really!"

She gazed at him with her large, handsome grey eyes, and added,-

"I do believe you're silly enough to live your double life at home sometimes. How splendid!"

"No, no! I assure you-"

"Of course you do! You dear foolish thing! You're ever so much sillier than I am. You're my master."

"No, indeed, no, no!"

"But you can go to Mrs. Bridgeman's for an hour easily. She expects you and I've promised that you will go."

"It's very kind of you, but really-"

"So that's settled. You'll meet me there, but don't forget I'm Miss Minerva Partridge. The address is Zoological House, Regent's Park, that big house in a garden just outside the Zoo."

"The big house in the Zoological Gardens," said the Prophet, feebly. "Thank you very much."

"No, no, outside the Zoo. And then we can arrange to-night about your introducing her to Mr. Sagittarius."

"Hush! Hush!" whispered the Prophet.

But he was too late. The long ears of the little pitchers had caught the well-known word.

"Why, that's pater familias," piped the li

ttle Capricornus.

"And mater familiaris," added the little Corona.

"You don't mean to say," cried Lady Enid to the Prophet, "that these are the children of Mr. Sagittarius?"

The Prophet bent his head.

"How very interesting!" said Lady Enid. "Everything is working out most beautifully. I must get them some chocolates."

And she immediately stepped into a confectioner's and came out with a beautiful box of bon-bons, tied with amethyst ribbon, which she gave to the delighted children.

"I know your dear father," she said. "At least I know who he is."

And she looked firmly at the Prophet, who dropped his eyes. They were now at the corner of Air Street, and the purple 'bus could be seen looming brilliantly in the distance.

"Good-bye, Lady Enid," said the Prophet.

"Oh, I'll see you off," she replied, evidently resolved to satisfy some further, unexpressed curiosity.

"There it is!" cried Capricornus. "It's coming! There it is!"

"Isn't it pretty?" shrieked the little Corona, who was evidently growing much excited by the chocolates and the centralness of the whole thing. "Let's go on the top! Let's go on the top!"

She began to jump on the pavement, and her brother was just about to follow her example when some sudden idea struck him into gravity. He turned to the Prophet and exclaimed solemnly,-

"Oh, if you please, Mr. Vivian, have you got the crab with you?"

"The crab!" cried Lady Enid, with much vivacity.

"Yes, yes, my boy, it's all right!" said the Prophet, hastily.

"Not your boy, if you please, Mr. Vivian," returned the little inquisitor. "And have you got the fist tooth?"

"Yes, yes!"

"And the rashes, and the honoured grandmother, and-"

"I've got everything," cried the Prophet, "every single thing!"

"Because mater familias said I was to make you bring them if I stayed for them all day."

"Yes, yes, they're all here-every one."

Lady Enid was gazing at the Prophet's slim form with almost passionate curiosity. It was evidently a problem to her how he had managed to conceal so many various commodities about his person without altering his shape. However, she had no time to study the matter, for at this moment the purple 'bus jerked along the kerb, and the voice of the conductor was heard crying,-

"Pork Butcher's Rest! All the way one penny! Pork-penny-all the way-Butcher's-Rest-one-Pork-all-Pork-penny-Pork-Butcher's- Pork-Rest-Pork-penny!"

With a hasty farewell the Prophet, accompanied, and indeed closely clutched, by the little Corona and Capricornus, scrambled fanatically, and not without two or three heavy falls, to the summit of the 'bus, while Lady Enid read the legend printed on it with a smile, ere she turned to walk home, putting two and two together, and thinking, with keen feminine satisfaction, how useless in the long run are all the negatives of man.

In later years, though many memories intervene, the Prophet will never forget his journey to the banks of the Mouse. Always it seemed very strange to him and dream-like, that everlasting journey upon the purple 'bus, complicated by the chatter of the younger scions of the Malkiel dynasty, and by the shrill cries of the conductor summoning the passers-by to hasten to that place of repose consecrated to the worthy and hard-working individuals who drew their modest incomes from the pig. The character of the streets changed as the central districts were left behind, and a curious scent, the scent of Suburbia, seemed to float between the tall chimneys in the morose atmosphere. The purple chariot, which rolled on and on like the chariot of Fate, drew gradually away from the large thoroughfares into mean streets, whose air of dull gentility was for ever autumnal, and the Prophet, on passing some gigantic gasworks, mechanically wondered whether it might not, perhaps, be that monument to whose shadow Malkiel the First had lived and died. Once, looking up at the black sky, he remarked to the little Capricornus that it was evidently going to rain.

"No, Mr. Vivian," replied the boy. "It won't rain hard this week. January's a fine month, but there'll be heavy floods in March, especially along the banks of the Thames."

"And in February there'll be such a lot of scarlet fever in the southern portions of England," added the little Corona. "Oh, Corney, just look at that kitty on the airey railings!"

"Area, Corona," corrected her brother. "Oh, my! ain't it funny?"

The Prophet remembered that he was travelling with the scions of a prophetic house.

It seemed many years before the 'bus stopped before a brick building full of quart pots, situated upon a gentle eminence sloping to a coal-yard, and the voice of the conductor proclaimed that the place of repose was reached. The Prophet and his diminutive guides descended from the roof and were shortly in a train puffing between the hunched backs of abominable little houses, sooty as street cats and alive with crying babies. Then bits of waste land appeared, bald wildernesses in which fragments of broken crockery hibernated with old tin cans and kettles yellow as dying leaves. A furtive brown rivulet wandered here and there like a thing endeavouring to conceal itself and unable to find a hiding-place.

"That's the Mouse, Mr. Vivian," remarked Capricornus, proudly. "We shall soon be there."

"Ridiculum mus," rejoined his sister, who evidently took after her learned mother.

"Culus, Corona; and you're not to say that. Pater familias says that the Mouse is a noble stream. We get out here, Mr. Vivian."

Here proved to be a wayside station on the very bank of the noble stream, and on the edge of a piece of waste ground so large that it might almost have been called country.

The Prophet and the two kids set off across this earth, which was named by the inhabitants "the Common." In the distance rose a fringe of detached brick and stone villas towards which Capricornus now pointed a forefinger that trembled with pride.

"That's where we live," he said, in a voice that was grown squeaky from conceit.

"Dulce domus," piped his sister, clutching the skirt of the Prophet's coat, and, thus supported, performing several very elaborate dancing steps upon the clayey soil over which he was feebly staggering. "Dulce dulce, dulce domus. Look at that rat, Corney!"

A large, raking rodent, indeed, at that instant emerged from the wreckage of what had once been a copper cauldron near by, and walked slowly away towards a slope of dust garnished with broken bottles and abandoned cabbage stalks. The Prophet shuddered and longed to flee, but the two kids, as if divining his thought, now clasped his hands and led him firmly forward to a yellow villa, fringed with white Bath stone and garnished plentifully with griffins. From its flat front shot ostentatiously forth a porch adorned with Roman columns which commanded a near view of the Mouse, and before the porch was a small garden in which several healthy-looking nettles had made their home.

As the Prophet and the two kids approached this delightful abode, a white face appeared, gluing itself to the pane of an upper window.

"There's pater familias!" piped Capricornus. "Don't he look ill?"

As they mounted the flight of imitation marble steps the face disappeared abruptly.

"He's coming to let us in," said Capricornus. "You're sure you've brought the crab and all the rashes?"

"Quite sure."

"Because, if you haven't, I don't know whatever mater familias'll-"

At this moment the portal of the lodge was furtively opened about half an inch, and a very small segment of ashen-coloured human face, containing a large and apprehensive eye, was shown in the aperture.

"Are you alone?" said the hollow voice of Mr. Sagittarius.

"Quite, quite alone," said the Prophet, reassuringly.

"It's all right, pater familias!" cried Capricornus. "He's brought all the rashes and the first tooth and everything. I made him."

"I don't think he wanted to," added the little Corona, suddenly developing malice.

"I've taken this long journey, Mr. Sagittarius," said the Prophet, with a remnant of self-respect, "at your special request. Am I to be permitted to come in?"

"If you're sure you're quite alone," returned the sage, showing a slightly enlarged segment of face.

"I am quite sure-positive!"

At this the door was opened just sufficiently to admit the passage of one thin person at a time, and, in single file, the Prophet, Corona and Capricornus passed into the lodge.

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