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The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 22291

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

At these exclamations the Prophet started in some surprise.

"You know this lady?" he asked.

"By repute, sir," replied Mr. Sagittarius.

"Who does not?" cried Madame. "She built the 'Prophets' Rest' at Birchington."

"And the Mediums' Almshouses at Sunnington."

"And the 'Palmists' Retreat' at Millaby Bay."

"And the-"

"I see you know all about her," interposed the Prophet. "Well, she is giving a reception to-night at Zoological House and I have sworn to be there. But I shall get home by eleven. You will understand, however, that I cannot have the pleasure of entertaining Mr. Sagittarius during the evening under my own roof. I regret this extremely, but you see it is unavoidable."

To the Prophet's great surprise this lucid explanation was received by his hearers with a strange silence and a combined meditative, and even moony, staring which was to him inexplicable. Both Madame and Mr. Sagittarius seemed suddenly immersed in contemplation. They began, he thought, to look like Buddhists, or like those devoted persons who, in the times of the desert monks, remained for long periods posed upon pillows in sandy wastes musing upon Eternity. At first, as he met their fixed eyes, he fancied that they were, perhaps, falling into a trance, but presently the conviction seized him that they must be, on the contrary, busily thinking out some problem. He hoped fervently that he did not form part of it. At length the quivering silence was broken by Mr. Sagittarius.

"I might accompany you to Mrs. Bridgeman's, sir," he said to the Prophet. "Might I not, Sophronia?"

"Oh, but-" began the Prophet, very hastily.

"The lady has frequently pressed me to accept of her hospitality."


"For years she has been writing to me at Jellybrand's, under my real name of Malkiel the Second, you understand. She addresses me simply as the master.'"

"But do the postal authorities-"

"Not upon the envelope, sir, not upon the envelope."

"I see."

"Hitherto, true to myself, true to the principles of Malkiel the First, and to the instincts of Madame, I have declined her personal acquaintance. But there is no reason why you should not introduce me to the house as Mr. Sagittarius, no reason at all."

The Prophet knew only too well that there was not, but before he had time to go on trying to wriggle out of the complication, Madame struck in.

"Miss Minerva is to be present at this reception, I believe," she said sharply.

"Yes, she is," answered the Prophet, illumined by a ray of hope.

"Jupiter," said Madame, "I will accompany you and Mr. Vivian to the Zoological Gardens to-night. It is my sacred duty."

The Prophet groaned.

"But, my darling-"

"The reception over, I will assist you and Mr. Vivian at the telescope in the Berkeley Square. In your presence I can do so without departing from my principles, salvo pudoribus. Do not interrupt me, Jupiter, if you please. I have thought the matter out. The crisis in our fate is at hand. Upon the events of the next three nights depends our future. These mysterious messages of which Mr. Vivian speaks must be examined into by us upon the spot. This mystery of the dressed Crab must be made clear. A woman's intellect is needed. A woman's intellect shall not be wanting. Ill as I am, worn down by the occurrences of yesterday and by this gentleman's incessant telegrams, I will leave my books"-here she waved one hand towards the dwarf bookcase-"I will assume an appropriate neglige and my outdoor boots, a fichu and bonnet, and will accompany you at once to the Berkeley Square, there to confer and arrange the programme of the evening. Mrs. Bridgeman would fall down before us in worship could she know who we really are. As it is, Mr. Vivian will introduce us modestly as two old and valued friends. The time may be at hand when we need no longer hide ourselves beneath an alibi. Till then we must possess ourselves, and Mr. Vivian must possess us, in patience. Ill as I am, I will accompany you. To-night shall see me in the Zoological Gardens at my husband's side."

Before the prospect of this sublime self-sacrifice both Mr. Sagittarius and the Prophet were as men dumb. They said not a word. They only gazed-with a sort of strange idiotcy-at Madame as she rose, with an elaborate and studied feebleness, from the maroon couch and prepared to go upstairs to assume the appropriate neglige. Only when she was at her full height did the Prophet, rendered desperate by the terrible results of his own ingenuity, nerve himself to utter one last protest.

"I really do not think it would be quite according to the rules of etiquette which prevail in the central districts," he cried, "for a lady to spend the night in the butler's pantry of a comparative stranger, even when accompanied by her husband. It might give rise to talk in the square, and-"

"The butler's pantry, sir!" exclaimed Mr. Sagittarius. "Explain yourself, I beg."

"The telescope is there, and-"

"I have passed beyond the reach of etiquette," said Madame, looking considerably like Joan of Arc and other well-known heroines. "My duty lies plain before me. Of myself I should not have selected the Zoological Gardens and the butler's pantry of a comparative stranger as places in which to pass the night, even when accompanied by my husband. But my conscience-mens conscium recto-guides me and I will not resist it. I will assume my neglige and bonnet and will be with you in a moment."

So saying she majestically quitted the apartment.

The Prophet fell down upon the maroon sofa like a man smitten with paralysis. He felt suddenly old, and very weak. He tried to think, to consider how he could explain Madame Sagittarius to his grandmother-for she must surely now become aware of the presence of strangers in her pretty home-how he could arrange matters with Mr. Ferdinand, how he could apologise to a lady whom he had never yet seen for appearing at her house with two uninvited guests, how he could get rid of the Sagittariuses when the horrible night watch should be at an end and the frigid winter dawn be near. But his mind refused to work. His brain was a blank, containing nothing except, perhaps, a vague desire for sudden death. Mr. Sagittarius did not disturb his contemplation of the inevitable. Indeed, that gentleman also seemed meditative, and the silence lasted until the reappearance of Madame, in a brown robe-of a slightly tea-gown type-trimmed with green chiffon and coffee-coloured lace, a black bonnet adorned with about a score of imitation plums made in some highly-glazed material, a heavy cloak lined with priceless rabbit-skins, and the outdoor boots.

If the Prophet had found the journey to the Mouse a painful experience, what can be said of his feelings during the journey from that noble stream? Long afterwards he recalled his state of mind during the tramp across the Common among the broken crockery, the dust-heaps, the decaying vegetables and the occasional lurking rats, the journey in the train, the reembarkment upon the purple 'bus from the gentle eminence sloping towards the coal-yard, the long pilgrimage towards the central districts with his very outlying companions. He recalled the peculiar numbness that strove against the desperation of his thoughts, his feeble efforts to lay plans frustrated by a perpetual buzzing in his brain, his flitting visions of that gentle grandmother round whose venerable age and dignity he was about to group such peculiar personalities, and beneath whose roof he was about to indulge in such unholy prophetic practices. Long afterwards-but even then he could not smile as men so often smile when they look back on lost despairs!

He and his companions spoke but little together as they journeyed. Occasionally Madame and Mr. Sagittarius conversed in husky whispers, like brigands the Prophet thought, and the veiled click of Madame's contralto struck through the startled air. But mostly a silence prevailed-a silence alive with fate.

At the corner of Air Street they got out and began to walk down Piccadilly towards the Berkeley square. It was now evening. The lamps were lighted and the murmur of strolling crowds filled the gloomy air. Madame stared feverishly about her, excited by the press, the flashing hansoms and the gaily-illuminated shops. Once, as she passed Benoist's, she murmured "O festum dies!" and again, by the Berkeley, when she was momentarily jostled by a very large and umbrageous tramp who had apparently been celebrating the joys of beggary-"Acto profanus vulgam!" But generally she was silent, enwrapped, no doubt, in bookish thought. When, at length, they stood before the door of number one thousand she breathed a heavy sigh.

"Please," said the Prophet, in a trembling voice, "please enter quietly. My grandmother is very unwell."

"Ankles seems to be a very painful complaint, sir," said Mr. Sagittarius. "But Madame and self are not in the habit of creating uproar by our movements."

"No, no. Of course not. Still-on tiptoe if you don't mind."

"I cannot walk on tiptoe," said Madame, in a voice that sounded to the Prophet terrifically powerful. "The attitude is precarious and undignified. As the great Juvenile-"

"Yes, yes. Ah! that's it!"

He managed to get his key into the door and very gingerly opened it. Madame and Mr. Sagittarius stepped into the hall, followed closely by the Prophet, who was content on conveying them unobserved to the library.

"This way," he whispered. "This way. Softly! Softly!"

He began to steal, like a shadow, across the hall, and, impressed by his surreptitious manner, his old and valued friends instinctively followed his example. All three of them, then, with long steps and theatrical pauses, were stagily upon the move, when suddenly the door that led to the servants' quarters swung open and Mrs. Fancy Quinglet debouched into their midst, succeeded by Mr. Ferdinand, who carried in his hand a menu card in a silver holder. At the moment of their appearance the Prophet, holding his finger to his lips, was taking a soft and secret stride in the direction of the library door, his body bent forward and his head protruded towards the sanctum he longed to gain, and Madame and Mr. Sagittarius, true to the instinct of imitation that dwells in our monkey race, were in precisely similar attitudes behind him. The hall being rather dark, and the gait of the trio it contained thus tragically surreptitious, it was perhaps not unnatural that Mrs. Fancy should give vent to a piercing cry of terror, and that Mr. Ferdinand should drop the menu and crouch back against the wall in a hunched position expressive of alarm. At any rate, such were their actions, while-for their part-the Prophet and his two old and valued friends uttered a united exclamation and struck three attitudes that were pregnant with defensive amazement.

Having uttered herself, Mrs. Fancy, according to her invariable custom when completely terrified, displayed all the semblance of clear-sighted composure and explanatory discrimination. While Mr. Ferdinand remained by the wall, with

his face to it and his large white hands spread out upon his shut eyes, the lady's maid advanced upon Madame, and, addressing herself apparently to some hidden universe in need of information, remarked in rather a piecing voice,-

"I say again, as I said afore, the house has been broke into and the robbers are upon us. I can't speak different nor mean other."

On hearing these words Madame's large and rippling countenance became suffused with indignant scarlet, and a preliminary click rang through the hall. The Prophet bounded forward.

"Hush, Fancy," he cried. "What are you saying?"

"What I mean, Master Hennessey. The house has been broke-"

"Hush! Hush! This lady and gentleman are-"

"Two old and valued friends-" boomed Madame.

"Two old and valued friends of mine. Mr. Ferdinand! Mr. Ferdinand, take your face from the wall, if you please. There is no cause for alarm. Now, Fancy-now!"

For Mrs. Fancy had, as usual, broken into tears on learning the reassuring truth, and was now displaying every symptom of distress and enervation. The Prophet, unable to calm her, was obliged to assist her upstairs and place her upon the landing, where he hurriedly left her uttering broken moans and murmurs, and repeating again and again her statement of affairs and assertion of inability to conceal the revealed obvious. On his return he found Madame, Mr. Sagittarius and Mr. Ferdinand grouped statuesquely in the hall as if to represent "Perturbation."

"Mr. Ferdinand," he said rather severely, "I did not expect this conduct of you, shrinking from guests in this extraordinary manner. A butler who shows terror at the sight of visitors does not conduce to the popularity of his employers."

"I beg pardon, sir. I was not prepared."

"Please be prepared another time. You will serve dinner for three to-night, very quietly, in the inner dining-room. I do not wish Mrs. Merillia to be disturbed in her illness, and-"

"If you please, sir, Mrs. Merillia feels herself so much better that she is coming down to dinner to-night."

"Coming down to dinner!" said the Prophet, aghast.

"Yes, sir. And she has asked in Sir Tiglath Butt and the Lady Julia Postlethwaite to join her. I was about to show Mrs. Merillia the menu, sir, when-"

"Good Heavens! Merciful Powers!" ejaculated the Prophet.


"What on earth is to be done?" continued the Prophet, lost for the moment to all sense of propriety.

Mr. Ferdinand looked at the old and valued friends.

"I can't say, sir, I'm sure," he replied, pursing up his lips.

"What is the meaning-" began Mr. Sagittarius.

"I'm not aware that-" started Madame.

The Prophet darted to the library door and opened it.

"Pray, pray come in here," he hissed. "My grandmother! Softly!"

"But the old la-"

"Hush, please!"

"I must remark, Mr. Viv-"

"Tsh! Tsh! Mr. Ferdinand, wait in the hall. I shall want to speak to you in a moment."

"Yes, sir."

The Prophet closed the door and turned to this indignant visitors.

"This is terrible," he said. "Terrible!"

"Pray why?" cried Madame.

"Why," cried the Prophet, "why?"

He sought frantically for some excuse. Suddenly a bright idea occurred to him.

"Why," he said, impressively. "Because Sir Tiglath Butt, the gentleman who is coming to dinner, is the person who for five-and-forty years has been seeking Mr. Sagittarius with the firm intention of assaulting, perhaps of killing, him."

Mr. Sagittarius turned deathly pale, and made a movement as if to get out of the nearest window.

"This is a trap!" he stammered. "This is a rat-trap. This was planned."

"Really"-began the Prophet.

But Mr. Sagittarius did not heed the exclamation. Trembling very violently, he continued,-

"Sophy, my darling, you are in danger. Let us fly!"

And, clutching his wife by the arm, to the Prophet's unspeakable delight he endeavoured to lead, or rather to drag her to the door. But Madame now showed the metal she was made of.

"Jupiter," she exclaimed, in her deepest note, "if you are a Prophet you can surely at moments be also a man. Where is your toga virilibus?"

"I don't know, my love, I'm sure. Don't let us lose a moment. Come, my angel!"

"I shall not come," retorted Madame, whose leaping ambition had been fired by the sound of titled names. "The gentleman believes you to be an American syndicate."

"I know, my blessing, I know. But-"

"Very well. If you don't behave like one he will never suspect you."

The Prophet saw his chance slipping from him and hastened to interpose.

"He might divine the truth," he said. "One can never-"

But at this moment he was interrupted by Mr. Ferdinand who abruptly opened the door and observed,-

"If you please, sir, Mrs. Merillia has sent down orders that the police are to be fetched at once."

Mr. Sagittarius, now thoroughly unnerved, turned from white to grey.

"The police!" he vociferated. "Sophy, my angel, let us fly. This is no place for you!"

"The police!" cried the Prophet. "Why?"

"I believe it's Mrs. Fancy's doing, sir. If you would go to Mrs. Merillia, sir, I think-"

The Prophet rushed from the room and hastened upstairs four steps at a time. He found his beloved grandmother in a state of grave agitation, and Mrs. Fancy, in floods of tears, reiterating her statement that there were robbers in the house.

"Oh, Hennessey!" cried Mrs. Merillia, on his entrance, "thank God that you are come. There are burglars in the house. Fancy has just encountered them in the hall. Go for the police, my dearest boy. Don't lose a moment."

"My dear grannie, they're not burglars."

"I can't speak different, Master Hennessey, nor-"

"Then who are they, Hennessey? Fancy declares-"

"They are two-two-well, two old and valued friends of mine."

"Old and valued friends of ours!"

"Of mine, grannie. Fancy, pray don't make such a noise!"

"Fancy," said Mrs. Merillia, "you can go to your room and lie down."

"Yes, ma'am. I say again, as I said afore, the house has been broke into and the robbers-"

At this point the Prophet shut the door on the faithful and persistent creature, who forthwith carried her determination and sobs to an upper storey.

"Hennessey, what is all this? Who is really here?"

"Grannie, dear, only two friends of mine," replied the Prophet, trying to look at ease, and feeling like a criminal.

"Friends of yours? But surely then I know them. I thought I knew all your friends."

"So you do, grannie, all except-except just these."

"And they are old and valued, you say?"

"No, no-that is, I mean yes."

Mrs. Merillia was too dignified to ask any further questions. She lay back on her sofa, and looked at her grandson with a shining of mild reproach in her green eyes.

"Well, my dear," she said, "go back to your friends, but don't forget that Lady Julia and Sir Tiglath are dining here at half-past seven."

"Grannie," cried the Prophet, with a desperate feeling that Madame meant to stay, "you ought not to dine downstairs to-night. Let me send and put them off."

"No, Hennessey," she answered, with gentle decision. "I feel better, and I want cheering up. My morning was not altogether pleasant."

The Prophet understood that she was alluding to his questions, and felt cut to the heart. His home seemed crumbling about him, but he knew not what to do or what to say. Mrs. Merillia observed his agitation, but she did not choose to remark upon it, for she considered curiosity the most vulgar of all the vices.

"Go to your friends, dear," she said again. "But be in time for dinner."

"Yes, grannie."

The Prophet descended the stairs and met Mr. Ferdinand at the bottom.

"Am I to send for the police, sir?"

"No, no. I've explained matters."

"And about dinner, sir?"

"I'll tell you in a moment, Mr. Ferdinand," replied the Prophet, entering the library with the fixed intention of getting Madame and Mr. Sagittarius out of the house without further delay.

The tableau that met his eyes, however, was not reassuring. He found Madame, having laid aside her bonnet, and thrown the rabbit-skin cloak carelessly upon a settee, arranging her hair before a mirror, and shaking up the coffee-coloured lace fichu in a manner that suggested a permanent occupation of the house, while her husband, sunk in a deep armchair in an attitude of complete nervous prostration, was gazing dejectedly into the fire. When the Prophet entered, the latter bounded with alarm, while Madame turned round, a couple of hairpins in her mouth and both hands to the back of her head.

"Ah," she remarked, through the pins, "il a vous! I am happy to say that I have induced Mr. Sagittarius to assume his toga virilibus, and that we have, therefore, great pleasure in yielding to your thoughtful pressure-"

"My what?" said the Prophet, blankly.

"You thoughtful pressure, and accepting your urgent invite to dine here before proceeding to the Zoological Gardens and thence to the butler's pantry."

The Prophet tried not to groan while she emitted a pin and secured with it a wandering plait of raven hair.

"You're sure, sir," said Mr. Sagittarius, in a deplorable voice, "that the gentleman is convinced that I am really an American syndicate?"

The Prophet rang the bell. He could not trust himself to speak, and, when he looked at Madame's large and determined eyes, he knew that to do so would be useless.

Mr. Ferdinand appeared.

"Mr. Ferdinand," said the Prophet, "this lady and gentleman will join us at dinner to-night."

"Yes, sir," said Mr. Ferdinand, casting a glance of outraged prudery upon Mr. Sagittarius, who was attired in his usual morning costume, including spats.

"What's the matter, Mr. Ferdinand?" asked the Prophet, following that functionary's eyes. "Ha! He's not dressed!"

"No, sir!"

"Mr. Sagittarius," cried the Prophet, "you're not dressed!"

"Sir," cried that gentleman, "do you dare to accuse me of impropriety in a frock coat?"

"No, no. But for dinner. You can't possibly dine like that!"

"I have dined like this, sir, for the last twenty years. The architects and their wives-"

"I daresay. But unluckily there will be no architects and their wives at dinner to-night. Please stand up."


"Kindly stand up. Mr. Ferdinand!"

"Yes, sir."

"Place your back against this gentleman's if you please-touching, touching! Don't wriggle away like that. Keep your heels to the ground while I fetch a sheet of notepaper. Don't move your heads either of you. I thought so. You're pretty much the same height. Mr. Ferdinand, you will lay out a white shirt and one of your black dress suits in my dressing-room at once. Madame, I regret that we must leave you for a few moments. Will you rest here? Allow me to place a cushion for your head. And here is Juvenal in the original."

So saying, the Prophet hurried Mr. Sagittarius from the room, driving Mr. Ferdinand, in a condition of elephantine horror, before him, and abandoning Madame to an acquaintance with the classics that she had certainly never achieved in the society of the renowned Dr. Carter.

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