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The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 21584

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

On stepping into a small vestibule, paved with black and white lozenges, and fitted up with an iron umbrella stand, a Moorish lamp and a large yellow china pug dog, the Prophet found himself at once faced by Mr. Sagittarius, whose pallid countenance, nervous eye and suspicious demeanour plainly proclaimed him to be, as he had stated, very rightly and properly going about in fear of his life.

"Go to the schoolroom, my darlings," he whispered to his children. "Why, what have you there?"

"Choclets," said Capricornus.

"From the pretty lady, mulius pulchrum," added the little Corona.

"Who is a mulibus pulchrum, my love?" asked Mr. Sagittarius, before Capricornus had time to correct his sister's Latin.

"It was Miss Minerva," said the Prophet. "We happened to meet her."

"Indeed, sir. Run away, my pretties, and don't eat more than one each, or mater familias will not approve."

Then, as the little ones disappeared into the shadows of the region above, he added to the Prophet,-

"You've nearly been the death of Madame, sir."

"I'm sure I'm very sorry," said the Prophet.

"Sorrow is no salve, sir, no salve at all. Were it not for her books I fear we might have lost her."

"Good gracious!"

"Mercifully her books have comforted her. She is resting among them now. Madame is possessed of a magnificent library, sir, encyclopaedic in its scope and cosmopolitan in its point of view. In it are represented every age and every race since the dawn of letters; thousands upon thousands of authors, sir, Rabelais and Dean Farrar, Lamb and the Hindoos, Mettlelink and the pith of the great philosophers such as John Oliver Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Earl Spencer; the biting sarcasm of Hiny, the pathos of Peps, the oratorical master-strokes of such men as Gladstone, Demosthenes and Keir Hardie; the romance of Kipling, sir, of Bret Harte and Danty Rossini; the poetry of Kempis a Browning and of Elizabeth Thomas Barrett-all, all are there bound in Persian calf. Among these she seeks for solace. To these she flies in hours of anguish."

"Does she indeed?" said the Prophet, feeling thoroughly overwhelmed.

"She desires me to take you to her at once, sir, there to confer and"-he lowered his voice and trembled visibly-"to arrange measures for the protection of my life."

The Prophet found himself wishing that he had been less precipitate in covertly alluding to Sir Tiglath's long desire of assault and battery, but before he had time to wish anything for more than half a minute, Mr. Sagittarius had guided him ceremoniously across the hall and was turning the handle of a door that was decorated with black and scarlet paint.

"Here, sir," he whispered, "you will find Madame surrounded by the authors whom she loves, by their portraits, their biographies and their writings. Here she communes with the great philosophers, sir, the poets, the historians and the humourists of the entire world, from the earliest days down to this very moment-in Persian calf, sir."

He gazed awfully at the Prophet, and gently opened the door of this temple of the intellect.

The Prophet expected to find himself ushered into a gigantic chamber, lined from floor to ceiling with shelves that groaned beneath their burden of the literature of genius. Indeed he had, in fancy, beheld even the chairs and couches covered with stacks of volumes, the very floor littered with the choicest productions of the brains of the dead and living. His surprise was, therefore, very great when, on passing through the door, he beheld Madame Sagittarius reposing at full length upon a maroon sofa in a small apartment, whose bare walls, were entirely innocent of book-shelves. Indeed the only thing of the sort which was visible was a dwarf revolving bookcase which stood beside the sofa, and contained some twenty volumes bound, as Mr. Sagittarius had stated, in Persian calf, each of these volumes being numbered and adorned with a label on which was printed in letters of gold, "The Library of Famous Literature: Edited by Dr. Carter. Tasty Tit-bits from all Times."

"Madame, sir, in her library," whispered Mr. Sagittarius by the door. "She is absorbed, sir, and does not notice us."

In truth Madame Sagittarius did appear to be absorbed in thought, or something else, for her eyes were closed, her mouth was open, and a sound of regular breathing filled the little room.

"She is thinking out some problem, sir," continued Mr. Sagittarius. "She is communing with the mighty dead. Sophronia, my love, Sophronia, Capricornus has brought the gentleman according to your orders. Sophy! Sophy!"

His final utterances, which were somewhat strident caused Madame Sagittarius to come away from her communion with the mighty dead with a loud ejaculation of the nature of a snort combined with a hissing whistle, to kick up her indoor kid boots into the air, turn upon her right elbow, and present a countenance marked with patches of red and white, and a pair of goggling, and yet hazy, eyes to the intruders upon her intellectual exertions.

"Mr. Vivian has come, Sophronia, according to your directions."

Madame uttered a second snort, brought her feet to the floor, arranged her face in a dignified expression with one fair hand, breathed heavily, and finally bowed to the Prophet with majestic reserve and remarked, with the professional click,-

"I was immersed in thought and did not perceive your entrance. Mens invictus manetur. Be seated, I beg."

Here certain very elaborate contortions and swellings of her interesting countenance suggested that she was repressing a good-sized yawn, and she was obliged to rearrange her features with both hands before she could continue.

"Thought conquers matter, as Plauto-I should say as Platus very rightly obesrved."

"Quite so," assented the Prophet, trying to live up to the library, but scarcely succeeding.

"Even in the days of the great Juvenile," proceeded Madame, "to whose satires I owe much"-here she laid a loving hand upon Vol. 2 of the "Library of Famous Literature."-"Long ere the days when Lord Lytton and his Caxtons introduced us to the blessings of the printing press there were doubtless ladies who, like myself, could forget the treachery and the lies of men in silent communion with the brains of the departed. Far better to be Milton's 'Il Penserosero' than Lord Byron's 'L'Allegra!'"

To this pronounciamento, which was interrupted several times by more alarming contortions of the brain-worker's face, the Prophet replied with a vague affirmative, while Mr. Sagittarius whispered,-

"Her whole knowledge, sir, comes straight from there"-pointing towards the dwarf bookcase. "She brought it on the instalment system. Dr. Carter has made her what she is! That man, sir, deserves to be canonised. Eight guineas and a half, sir, and such a result!"

"Such a result!" the Prophet whispered back.

By this time Madame Sagittarius had apparently ceased to commune with the dead, for her striking face assumed a more normal expression of feminine bitterness as she realised who was before her, and she exclaimed sharply,-

"Oh, so you've come at last, Mr. Vivian! And pray what have you to say? What about the rashes? And what is this danger that threatens Mr. Sagittarius?"

"We'd better take the danger first, my dear," said Mr. Sagittarius, with grave anxiety.

"Very well. Not that it should be the most important to one who wears the toga virilibus!"

"True, my love. Still, to take it first will clear the ground, I think, and set me more at ease. Well, sir?"

Thus adjured, the Prophet resolved to make a clean breast of Sir Tiglath's declarations, and he therefore replied,-

"I thought it only right to wire to you as I did, having learnt that there is in London a gentleman, an eminent man, who has for five-and-forty years been seeking for Malkiel with the avowed intention of-of-"

"Oh what, sir, of what?" said Mr. Sagittarius with trembling lips.

"Of doing him violence," replied the Prophet, impressively.

"What is the gent's name?" said Mr. Sagittarius, in great agitation.

"His name! Nomen volens!" added Madame.

"That," said the Prophet, "I prefer not to say at present."

"But why should he desire to-?"

"Because you are a prophet."

"There, Jupiter!" cried Madame, with flushed spitefulness. "What have I always said! All prophets are what they call outsiders-hors d'oeuvres, neither more nor less."

"I know, my love, I know. But how should this gent recognise me for a prophet? I'm sure my dress, my manner, are those of an outside broker, as I have often told you, Sophy. How-"

"The gentleman has not yet recognised you," said the Prophet. "At the moment he believes you to be an American syndicate."

"Thank mercy!" ejaculated Mr. Sagittarius.

"But one can never tell," added the Prophet. "He might find out."

"Nonsense!" cried Madame at this juncture. "We might quite well have gone to the square yesterday as I always suspected. But you are so timid, Jupiter. Timeo Dan-Dan-well, Dan something or other, as Virgil so truly says."

"Cautious, Sophronia, only cautious, for your and the children's sakes!"

"I call a man who's afraid even when he's passing everywhere as an American syndicate a cowardly custard," rejoined Madame, who appeared to be suffering under that peculiar form of flushed irritability which is apt to follow on heavy thought, indulged in to excess in a recumbent position during the daytime. "There, that's settled. So now let us get to business. Kindly hand me your prophecy of last night, Mr. Vivian."

The Prophet drew from a breast pocket a sheet or two of notepaper, on which he had dotted down, in prophetic form, the events of the night before. Madame received it and continued,-

"Before perusing this report, Mr. Vivian, I should wish to be made acquainted with those particulars."

"Which ones?" said the Prophet.

"Of your grandmother's career."

"Oh, I-"

"Let us take them in order, please, and proceed parri passo. When was the old lady removed from the bottle?"

"Never," replied the Prophet, firmly. "Never."

An expression of incredulous amazement decorated the obstreperous features of Madame.

"Do you mean to tell me, Mr. Vivian, that she sucks it still?" she inquired.

"I mean what I say, that she has never been removed from it," returned the Prophet, with energy.

"Well, sir, she must be very partial to milk and Indian rubber, very partial indeed!" said Mr. Sagittarius. "Go on, my darling."

"Her first tooth, Mr. Vivian-when did she cut it?"

"She has no idea."

Madame began to look decidedly grim.

"Date of short-coating?" she rapped out.

"There was no date. She never wore a short-coat."

"Do you desire me to belie

ve, Mr. Vivian, that the old lady has been going about in long clothes ever since she was born?" inquired Madame, with incredulous sarcasm.

"Most certainly I do," replied the Prophet.

"Then how does she get along, pray? Come! Come!"

"She has always worn long clothes," cried the Prophet, boldly standing up for his beloved relative, "and always will. You can take that from me, Madame Sagittarius. I know my grandmother, and I am ready to pledge my honour to it."

"Oh, very well. She must be a very remarkable lady. That's all I can say. When did she put her hair up?"

"Never. She has never put it up."

"She has never put her hair up!"

"No, never."

"You mean to say that your grandmother goes about in long clothes with her hair down in the central districts?" cried Madame in blank amazement.

"She has never put her hair up," answered the Prophet, with almost obstinate determination.

"Oh, well-if she prefers! But I wonder what the police are about!" retorted Madame. "And now the rashes?"

"There are none."

But at this Madame's temper-already somewhat upset by her prolonged communion with the mighty dead-showed symptoms of giving way altogether.

"Rubbish, Mr. Vivian!" she said, clicking loudly and passing with an almost upheaving jerk to her upper register! "I'm a mother and was once a child. Rubbish! I must insist upon knowing the number of the rashes."

"I assure you there are none."

"D'you wish me to believe that the old lady has gone about all her life in the Berkeley Square in long clothes and her hair down, with her lips to the bottle and never had a rash? Do you wish me to believe that, Mr. Vivian?"

"Yes, sir, do you wish Madame, a lady of deep education, sir, to believe that?" cried Mr. Sagittarius.

"I can only adhere to what I have said," answered the Prophet. "My grandmother has never been removed from the bottle, has never worn a short coat, has never put her hair up and has never had an epidemic in Berkeley Square."

"Then all I can say is that she's an unnatural old lady," cried Madame, with obvious temper, tossing her head and kicking out the kid boots, as if seized with the sudden desire to use them upon a human football. "And there's not many like her."

"There is no one like her, no one at all," said the Prophet with fervour.

"So I should suppose," cried Madame, forgetting the other questions as to the day of marriage, etc., in the vexation of the moment. "She must certainly be the bird of whom Phoenix wrote that rose from ashes in the days of the classics. Rarum avis indeed! Eh, Jupiter?"

"Very rarum, my dear, very indeed!" responded her husband, with imitative sarcasm. "An avis indeed, not a doubt of it."

"De Queechy should have known her," continued Madame. "He always loved everything out of the common. Well, and now for the prophecy. What is all this, Mr. Vivian?"

"The result of last night's observation," said the Prophet.

"Do you call that a cycloidal curve?" asked Madame, with a contralto laugh that shook the library. "Look, Jupiter!"

Mr. Sagittarius glanced over his wife's heaving shoulder.

"Very poor, my dear, very irregular indeed."

"It's the best I could do," said the Prophet, still politely.

"I daresay," replied Mr. Sagittarius. "I daresay. Where's your star-map?"

"I'm afraid I don't know," answered the Prophet. "I left it in the pomade."

"The pomade!"

"Yes, the butler's own special pomade, and it seems to have disappeared."

"Very careless, very careless indeed. Let's see-prophecy first, then how arrived at. 'Grandmother apparently threatened with some danger at night in immediate future. Great turmoil in the house during dark hours.' H'm! 'Some stranger, or strangers, coming into her life and causing great trouble and confusion, almost resulting in despair, and perhaps actually inducing illness.' H'm! H'm! We didn't arrive at any of this by our observations, did we, Sophronia?"

"Decidedly not," snapped Madame, haughtily.

"And now let's see how arrived at. H'm! H'm! Grandmother-ingress of Crab-conjunction of Scorpio with Serpens-moon in eleventh house. Yes, that's so. Jupiter in trine with Saturn-What's this? 'Crab dressed implies danger-undressed Crab much safer-attempted intervention failure-she's in a nice state now-it tried to keep her from it, but she was drawn right to it.' Right to what?"

"The Crab?"

"Of course she was drawn to it. She depends on the Crab these nights. But what does the rest mean?"

"The Crab was dressed."

"Dressed-what in?"

"I don't know," said the Prophet. "It didn't tell me."

Mr. Sagittarius and Madame exchanged glances.

"Explain yourself, Mr. Vivian, I beg," cried Madame in a somewhat excited manner. "How could the Crab be dressed?"

"I have wondered," said the Prophet, gazing at the couple before him with shining eyes. "But it was dressed last night, and that made it exceptionally dangerous in some way. Something seemed to tell me so. Something did tell me so."

"What told you?" inquired Madame, with more excitement and a certain respect which had been quite absent from her manner before.

"Something that came in the night. I don't know what it was. Light flashed from it."

"It sounds like a sort of comet, my darling," said Mr. Sagittarius, considerably perturbed. "We didn't observe that the Crab was specially dressed, did we?"

"It had nothing on at all when we saw it," said Madame with growing agitation. "But whatever was this comet that flashed light? That's what I want to get at."

"It was a dark thing that told me the Crab was dressed, that my grandmother had been with it and that its influence was inimical to her."

"A dark thing! That's not a comet!" said Mr. Sagittarius.

"It vanished with a flash of light into the square."

"At what time did you observe it, sir?" asked Mr. Sagittarius, while Madame leaned forward, gazing with goggling eyes at the Prophet.

"At exactly half-past one."

"Did it stay long?"

"A few minutes only-but it made an impression upon me that I can never forget."

It had apparently also made a very great impression upon Mr. and Madame Sagittarius, who remained for some seconds staring fixedly at the Prophet without uttering a word. At last Mr. Sagittarius turned to Madame and said in a voice that shook with seriousness,-

"Can it be, Sophronia, that prophets ought to live in the central districts? Can it really be that the nearer they are to the Circus, and even to the Stores-"

"O beatus illa!" interjected Madame upon the pinions of a sigh.

"Yes, Sophronia, the Stores, the more clearly is the knowledge of the future vouchsafed to them? If it should prove to be so!"

Madame stared again upon the Prophet with a fixity and strained inquiry which made him shift in his seat.

"If it should!" she repeated, upon the lowest note of her lower register, which sounded, at that solemn moment, like the keynote of a dreamer. Then, with a sudden change of manner, she cried sharply,-

"Jupiter, you must accompany this gentleman back to the square to-day."

The Prophet started. So did Mr. Sagittarius.

"But-" they cried simultaneously.

"And you must share his night watch."

"But, my darling-"

"Or I will," cried Madame. "Which is it to be?"

"Mr. Sagittarius!" exclaimed the Prophet.

"Very well," said Madame. "Let mine be the weary task to wait and watch at home. Fata feminus. The mystery of the dressed Crab must be unveiled. Should this mysterious visitant again vouchsafe a prophetic message, a practical prophet must be at hand to receive it. Jupiter, this gentleman is not practical. This report"-she struck the paper on which the Prophet had dotted down his notes-"is badly written. The cycloidal curve might have been made by a Board School child. The deductions drawn-deductio ad absurdibus-reveal no talent, none of the prophetic feu de joie at all. But this mystery of the dressed Crab may mean much. Jupiter, you will accompany this gentleman back to London and you will assist him practically at the telescope to-night."

"Very well, my love. I will risk the personal danger, for your and the children's-"

"But-but really-" began the Prophet. "I am very sorry, but-"

"Madame has spoken, sir," said Mr. Sagittarius, very solemnly.

"I know she has. But-yes, I know there are no buts in your dictionary, Madame, I know there aren't-but I have an engagement to-night that I have sworn-"

"What engagement, sir?" said Mr. Sagittarius, sternly. "You have sworn to us. You must know that."

"I have sworn to almost everyone," cried the distracted Prophet. "But this swear-I mean this oath must be kept before yours."

"Before ours, sir?"

"It comes on before eleven. I keep my oath to you after it. I manage the two, don't you see?"

"He will see that you manage the two, Mr. Vivian, I can assure you," said Madame, viciously. "Won't you, Jupiter?"

"Certainly, my dear. What is the oath, sir, that you place before ours?"

"An oath to Miss Minerva," returned the Prophet, beginning to feel reckless, firm in the conviction that it was henceforth his destiny to be the very sport of Fate.

"Ha!" cried Mr. Sagittarius. "The double life!"

"Who is Miss Minerva, pray?" said Madame, shooting a very penetrating glance upon her husband.

"Your husband can tell you that," replied the Prophet, by no means without guile.

"Jupiter," cried Madame, "what is the meaning of this? Who is this person?"

Mr. Sagittarius looked exceedingly uncomfortable.

"My dear," he began, "she is a young fe-that is, a young wo-I should say-"

"A fe! A wo! Explain yourself, Jupiter!"

"She is a lady, my love."

"A lady! Do I know her?"

"I believe not, my dear."

"And do you?"

"No, my darling. That is-that is-"

"Yes, I suppose!" said Madame, with a very violent click.

"I can hardly say, Sophronia, that, I can't indeed. I have met her, by accident, quite by accident I assure you, once or twice."


"At Jellybrand's. She goes there to fetch letters on the same day as I do."

Madame's very intellectual brow was over-clouded with storm. She turned upon the Prophet.

"And what of this person, Mr. Vivian?" she cried. "What of her and this oath?"

The Prophet, who was secretly very delighted with the diversion he had so cleverly created, hastened to reply,-

"I have promised most solemnly to meet her to-night at a house in the Zoological Gardens!"

"A house in the Zoological Gardens!"

"I mean at the Zoological House, the residence of Mrs. Vane Bridgeman, who is-"

But, at this point in his explanation, the Prophet was interrupted by both his hearers.

"The Jellybrand one!" cried Mr. Sagittarius.

"The prophets' patron!" vociferated Madame.

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