THE PROPHET OF BERKELEY SQUARE
By Robert Hichens
MRS. MERILLIA IS CARRIED TO BED
The great telescope of the Prophet was carefully adjusted upon its lofty, brass-bound stand in the bow window of Number One Thousand Berkeley Square. It pointed towards the remarkably bright stars which twinkled in the December sky over frosty London, those guardian stars which always seemed to the Prophet to watch with peculiar solicitude over the most respectable neighbourhood in which he resided. The polestar had its eye even now upon the mansion of an adjacent ex-premier, the belt of Orion was not oblivious of a belted earl's cosy red-brick home just opposite, and the house of a certain famous actor and actress close by had been taken by the Great Bear under its special protection.
The Prophet's butler, Mr. Ferdinand—that bulky and veracious gentleman—threw open the latticed windows of the drawing-room and let the cold air rush blithely in. Then he made up the fire carefully, placed a copy of Mr. Malkiel's Almanac, bound in dull pink and silver brocade by Miss Clorinda Dolbrett of the Cromwell Road, upon a small tulip-wood table near the telescope, patted a sofa cushion affectionately on the head, glanced around with the meditative eye of the butler born not made, and quitted the comfortable apartment with a salaried, but soft, footstep.
It was a pleasant chamber, this drawing-room of Number One Thousand. It spoke respectfully of the generations that were past and seemed serenely certain of a comfortable future. There was no too modern uneasiness about it, no trifling, gim-crack furniture constructed to catch the eye and the angles of any one venturing to seek repose upon it, no unmeaning rubbish of ornaments or hectic flummery of second-rate pictures. Above the high oaken mantel-piece was a little pure bust in marble of the Prophet when a small boy. To right and left were pretty miniatures in golden frames of the Prophet's delightfully numerous grandmothers. Here might be seen Mrs. Prothero, the great ship-builder's faithful wife, in blue brocade, and Lady Camptown, who reigned at Bath, in grey tabinet and diamond buckles, when Miss Jane Austen was writing her first romance; Mrs. Susan Burlington, who knew Lord Byron—a remarkable fact—and Lady Sophia Green, who knew her own mind, a fact still more remarkable. The last-named lady wore black with a Roman nose, and the combination was admirably convincing. Here might also be observed Mrs. Stuefitt, Mistress of the Mazurka, and the Lady Jane Follington, of whom George the Second had spoken openly in terms of approbation. She affected plum colour and had eyes like sloes—the fashionable hue in the neat-foot-and-pretty-ankle period. The flames of the fire twinkled brightly over this battalion of deuced fine women, who were all, without one exception, the grandmothers—in various degrees—of the Prophet. When speaking of them, in the highest terms, he never differentiated them by the adjectives great, or great-great. They were all kind and condescending enough to be his grandmothers. For a man of his sensitive, delicate and grateful disposition this was enough. He thought them all quite perfect, and took them all under the protection of his soft and beaming eyes.
Of Mrs. Merillia, the live grandmother with whom he had the great felicity to dwell in Berkeley Square, he seldom said anything in public praise. The incense he offered at her shrine rose, most sweetly perfumed, from his daily life. The hearth of this agreeable and grandmotherly chamber was attractive with dogs, the silver cage beside it with green love-birds. Upon the floor was a heavy, dull-blue carpet over which—as has been intimated—even a butler so heavy as Mr. Ferdinand could go softly. The walls were dressed with a dull blue paper that looked like velvet.
Here and there upon them hung a picture: a landscape of George Morland, lustily English, a Cotman, a Cuyp—cows in twilight—a Reynolds, faded but exquisitely genteel. A lovely little harpsichord—meditating on Scarlatti—stood in one angle, a harp, tied with most delicate ribands of ivory satin powdered with pimpernels, in another. Many waxen candles shed a tender and unostentatious radiance above their careful grease-catchers. Upon pretty tables lay neat books by Fanny Burney, Beatrice Harraden, Mary Wilkins, and Max Beerbohm, also the poems of Lord Byron and of Lord de Tabley. Near the hearth was a sofa on which an emperor might have laid an easy head that wore a crown, and before every low and seductive chair was set a low and seductive footstool.
A grandmother's clock pronounced the hour of ten in a frail and elegant voice as the finely-carved oak door was opened, and the Prophet seriously entered this peaceful room, carrying a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in his hand.
He was a neatly-made little man of fashionable, even of modish, cut, spare, smart and whimsical, with a clean-shaved, small-featured face, large, shining brown eyes, abundant and slightly-waving brown hair, that could only be parted, with the sweetest sorrow, in the centre of his well-shaped, almost philosophical head, and movements light and temperate as those of a meditative squirrel. Having just dined he was naturally in evening dress, with a butterfly tie, gleaming pumps, and a buttonhole of violets. He shut the door gently, glanced at his nice-looking grandmothers, and, walking forward very quietly and demurely, applied his eye to the telescope, lowering himself slightly by a Sandow exercise, which he had practised before he became a prophet. Having remained in this position of astronomical observation for some minutes, he deviated into the upright, closed the window, and tinkled a small silver bell that stood on the tulip-wood table beside Malkiel's Almanac.
Mr. Ferdinand appeared, looking respectfully buoyant.
"Has Mr. Malkiel sent any reply to my inquiry, Mr. Ferdinand?" asked the Prophet.
"He has not, sir," replied Mr. Ferdinand, sympathetically.
"Did the boy messenger say he delivered my note?"
"He said so, sir, on his Bible oath, sir."
"And do you believe him?"
"Oh, sir!" responded Mr. Ferdinand, in a shocked voice, "surely a London lad would not be found to tell a lie!"
"I hope not, Mr. Ferdinand. Still—did he look a nervous sort of lad?"
"He was a trifle pale, sir, about the gills—but a heart of gold, sir, I feel sure. He wore four medals, sir."
"Four medals! Nevertheless, he may have been frightened to go to Mr. Malkiel's door. That will do, Mr. Ferdinand."
Mr. Ferdinand was about to bow and retire when the Prophet, after a moment of hesitation, added,—
"Stay, Mr. Ferdinand. Mrs. Merillia has gone to the Gaiety Theatre to-night. I expect her back at half-past eleven. She may need assistance on her return."
"Assistance, sir! Mrs. Merillia, sir!"
Mr. Ferdinand's luminous eyes shone with amazement.
"She may—I say she may—have to be carried to bed."
Mr. Ferdinand's jaw dropped. He gave at the knees and was obliged to cling to a Chippendale cabinet for support.
"Have an armchair ready in the hall in case of necessity and tell Gustavus to sit up. Mrs. Merillia must not be dropped. You understand. That will do, Mr. Ferdinand."
Mr. Ferdinand endeavoured to bow, and ultimately succeeded in retiring. When his tremulous shoulders were no longer visible, the Prophet opened Marcus Aurelius, and, seating himself in a corner of the big couch by the fire, crossed his legs one over the other and began to read that timid Ancient's consolatory, but unconvincing, remarks. Occasionally he paused, however, murmured doubtfully, "Will she have to be carried to bed?" shook his head mournfully and then resumed his reading.
While he thus employs his time, we must say a word or two about him.
Mr. Hennessey Vivian was now a man of thirty-eight, of excellent fortune, of fine connections, and of admirable disposition. He had become an orphan as soon as it was in his power to do so, having lost his father—Captain Vivian of Her Majesty's Tenth Lancers—some months before, and his mother—who had been a Merillia of Chipping Sudbury—a few minutes after his birth. In these unfortunate circumstances, over which he, poor infant, had absolutely no control—whatever unkind people might say!—he devolved upon his mother's mother, the handsome and popular Mrs. Merillia, who assumed his charge with the rosy alacrity characteristic of her in all her undertakings. With her the little Hennessey had passed his infantine years, blowing happy bubbles, presiding over the voyages of his own private Noah—from the Army and Navy Stores, with two hundred animals of both sexes!—eating pap prepared by Mrs. Merillia's own chef, and sleeping in a cot hung with sunny silk that might have curtained Venus or have shaken about Aurora as she rose in the first morning of the world. From her he had acquired the alphabet and many a ginger-nut and decorative bonbon. And from her, too, he had set forth, with tears, in his new Eton jacket and broad white collar, to go to Mr. Chapman's preparatory school for little boys at Slough. Here he remained for several years, acquiring a respect for the poet Gray and a love of Slough peppermint that could only cease with life. Here too he made friends with Robert Green, son of Lord Churchmore, who was afterwards to be a certain influence in his life. His existence at Slough was happy. Indeed, so great was his affection for the place that his removal to Eton cost him suffering scarcely less acute than that which presently attended his departure from Eton to Christchurch. Over his sensations on leaving Oxford we prefer to draw a veil, only saying that his last outlook—as an undergraduate—over her immemorial towers was as hazy as the average Cabinet Minister's outlook over the events of the day and the desires of the community.
But if the moisture of the Prophet did him credit at that painful period of his life, it must be allowed that his behaviour on being formally introduced into London Society showed no puling regret, no backward longings after echoing colleges, lost dons and the scouts that are no more. He was quite at his ease, and displayed none of the high-pitched contempt of Piccadilly that is often so amusingly characteristic of the young gentlemen accustomed to "the High."
Mrs. Merillia, who had been a widow ever since she could remember, possessed the lease of the house in Berkeley Square in which the Prophet was now sitting. It was an excellent mansion, with everything comfortable about it, a duke on one side, a Chancellor of the Exchequer on the other, electric light, several bathrooms and the gramophone. There was never any question of the Prophet setting up house by himself. On leaving Oxford he joined his ample fortune to Mrs. Merillia's as a matter of course, and they settled down together with the greatest alacrity and hopefulness. Nor were their pleasant relations once disturbed during the fifteen years that elapsed before the Prophet applied his eye to the telescope in the bow window and gave Mr. Ferdinand the instructions which have just been recorded.
These fifteen years had not gone by without leaving their mark upon our hero. He had done several things during their passage. For instance, he had written a play, very nearly proposed to the third daughter of a London clergyman and twice been to the Derby. Such events had, not unnaturally, had their effect upon the formation of his character and even upon the expression of his intelligent face. The writing of the play—and, perhaps, its refusal by all the actor-managers of the town—had traced a tiny line at each corner of his mobile mouth. The third daughter of the London clergyman—his sentiment for her—had taught his hand the slightly episcopal gesture which was so admired at the Lambeth Palace Garden Party in the summer of 1892. And the great race meeting was responsible for the rather tight trousers and the gentleman-jockey smile which he was wont to assume when he set out for a canter in the Row. From all this it will be guessed that our Prophet was exceedingly amenable to the influences that throng at the heels of the human destiny. Indeed, he was. And some few months before this story opens it came about that he encountered a gentleman who was, in fact, the primary cause of this story being true. Who was this gentleman? you will say. Sir Tiglath Butt, the great astronomer, Correspondent of the Institute of France, Member of the Royal College of Science, Demonstrator of Astronomical Physics, author of the pamphlet, "Star-Gazers," and the brochure, "An investigation into the psychical condition of those who see stars," C.B.F.R.S. and popular member of the Colley Cibber Club in Long Acre.
The Prophet was introduced to Sir Tiglath at the Colley Cibber Club, and though Sir Tiglath, who was of a freakish disposition and much addicted to his joke declined to speak to him, on the ground that he (Sir Tiglath) had lost his voice and was unlikely to find it in conversation, the Prophet was greatly impressed by the astronomer's enormous brick-red face, round body, turned legs, eyes like marbles, and capacity for drinking port-wine—so much so, in fact that, on leaving the club, he hastened to buy a science primer on astronomy, and devoted himself for several days to a minute investigation of the Milky Way.
As there is a fascination of the earth, so is there a fascination of the heavens. Along the dim, empurpled highways that lead from star to star, from meteorite to comet, the imagination travels wakefully by night, and the heart leaps as it draws near to the silver bosses of the moon. Mrs. Merillia was soon obliged to permit the intrusion of a gigantic telescope into her pretty drawing-room, and found herself expected to converse at the dinner-table on the eight moons of Saturn, the belts of Jupiter, the asteroids of Mars and the phases of Venus. These last she at first declined to discuss with a man, even though he were her grandson. But she was won over by the Prophet's innocent persuasiveness, and drawn on until she spoke almost as readily of the movements of the stars as formerly she had spoken of the movements of the Court from Windsor to London, and from London to Balmoral. In truth, she expected that Hennessey's passion for the comets would cease as had ceased his passion for the clergyman's daughter; that his ardour for astronomy would die as had died his ardour for play-writing; that he would give up going to Corona Borealis and to the Southern Fish as he had given up going to the Derby. Time proved her wrong. As the days flew Hennessey became increasingly impassioned. He was more often at the telescope than at the Bachelors', and seemed on the way to become almost as gibbous as the planet Mars. Even he slightly neglected his social duties; and on one terrible occasion forgot that he was engaged to dine at Cambridge House because he was assisting at a transit of Mercury.
Now all this began to weigh upon the mind of Mrs. Merillia, despite the amazing cheerfulness of disposition which she had inherited from two long lines of confirmed optimists—her ancestors on the paternal and maternal sides. She did not know how to brood, but, if she had, she might well have been led to do so. And even as it was she had been reduced to so unusual a condition of dejection that, a week before the evening we are describing, she had been obliged to order a box at the Gaiety Theatre, she, who, like all optimists, habitually frequented those playhouses where she could behold gloomy tragedies, awful melodramas, or those ironic pieces called farces, in which the ultimate misery of which human nature is capable is drawn to its farthest point.
In the beginning of this new dejection of hers, Mrs. Merillia was now seated in a stage box at the "Gaiety," with an elderly General of Life Guards, a Mistress of the Robes, and the grandfather of the Central American Ambassador at the Court of St. James, and all four of them were smiling at a neat little low comedian, who was singing, without any voice and with the utmost precision, a pathetic romance entitled, "De Coon Wot Got de Chuck."
Meanwhile the Prophet was engaged for the twentieth time in considering whether Mrs. Merillia, on her return from this festival, would have to be carried to bed by hired menials.
This brings us to the great turning point in our hero's life, to the point when first he began to respect the strange powers stirring within him.
Until he encountered Sir Tiglath Butt in the dining-room of the Colley Cibber Club Hennessey had been but a dilettante fellow. He had written a play, but airily, and without the twenty years of arduous and persistent study declared by the dramatic critics to be absolutely necessary before any intelligent man can learn how to get a bishop on, or a chambermaid off, the stage. He had nearly proposed to a clergyman's daughter, but thoughtlessly, and without any previous examination into the clericalism of rectory females, any first-hand knowledge of mothers' meetings, devoid of which he must be a stout-hearted gentleman who would rush in where even curates often fear to tread. He had been to the Derby, but without wearing a bottle-green veil or carrying a betting-book. In fact, he had not taken life very seriously, or fully appreciated the solemn duties it brings to all who bear its yoke. Only when the plump red hand of Sir Tiglath—holding a bumper of thirty-four port—pointed the way to the heavens, did Hennessey begin—through his telescope—to see the great possibilities that foot it about the existence of even the meanest man who eats, drinks and suffers. For through his telescope he saw that he might be a prophet. Malkiel read the future in the stars. Why not he?
He endeavoured to do so. He sought an intimacy with the benefic Jupiter, and found it—perhaps by a secret kowtowing to Sagittarius. He made up openly to Canis Major and was shortly on what might almost be considered terms of affection with Venus. And he was, moreover, presently quite fearless in the presence of Saturn, quite unabashed beneath the glittering eye of Mercury. Then, as the neophyte growing bold by familiarity with the circle of the great ones, he ventured on his first prophecy, a discreet and even humble forecast of the weather. He predicted a heavy fall of snow for a certain evening, and so distrusted his own prediction that when the evening came, mild and benign, he sallied forth to the Empire Palace of Varieties, and stayed till near midnight, laughing at the sallies of French clowns, and applauding the frail antics of cockatoos on motor bicycles. When, on the stroke of twelve, he came airily forth wrapped in the lightest of dust coats, he was obliged to endure the greatest of man's amazements—the knowledge that there was a well of truth within him. Leicester Square was swathed in an ivory fleece, and he was obliged to gain Berkeley Square on foot, treading gingerly in pumps, escorted by linkmen with flaring golden torches, and preceded by tipsy but assiduous ruffians armed with shovels, who, with many a lusty oath and horrid imprecation, cleared a thin thread of path between the towering walls of snow that sparkled faintly in the gaslight.
This experience fired him. He rose up early, lay down late, and, quite with her assent, cast the horoscope of Mrs. Merillia in the sweat of his brow. He cast, we say, her horoscope and, from a certain conjunction of the planets, he gathered, to his horror, that upon the fifteenth day of the month of January she would suffer an accident while on an evening jaunt. We find him now, on this fifteenth day of the first month, aware of his revered grandmother's intrepid expedition to the Gaiety Theatre, waiting her return to Berkeley Square with mingled feelings which we might analyse for pages, but which we prefer baldly to state.
He longed to be proved indeed a prophet, and he longed also to see his beloved relative return from her sheaf of pleasures in the free and unconstrained use of all her graceful limbs. He was, therefore, torn by foes in a mental conflict, and was in no case to sip the philosophic honey of Marcus Aurelius as he sat between the telescope and the fire in the comfortable drawing-room awaiting his grandmother's return.
"Gustavus," said Mr. Ferdinand in the servants' hall to the flushed footman who lay upon a what-not, sipping a glass of ale and reading a new and unabridged farthing edition of Carlyle's French Revolution, "Gustavus, Mrs. Merillia has been and gone to the Gaiety Theatre to-night. We expect her back at eleven-thirty sharp. She may need assistance on her return, Gustavus."
The footman put down the tumbler which he was in the act of raising to his pouted lips.
"Assistance, Mr. Ferdinand!" he ejaculated. "Mrs. Merillia, Mr. Ferdinand!"
"She may—we say she may—have to be carried to bed, Gustavus."
Gustavus's jaw dropped, and the French Revolution fluttered in his startled hands.
"Good lawks, Mr. Ferdinand!" he exclaimed (not quoting from Carlyle).
"Have an armchair ready in the hall, Gustavus. Mrs. Merillia must not be dropped. You understand? That will do, Gustavus."
And Mr. Ferdinand passed to the adjacent supper-table, to join the upper housemaid in a discussion of two subjects that were very near to their hearts, a round of beef and a tureen of pickled cabbage, while Gustavus got up from the what-not in a bemused manner, and proceeded to search dreamily for an armchair. He came upon one by chance in the dining-room, and wheeled it out into the hall just as the clocks in the house rang out the half-hour after eleven.
The Prophet above sprang up from the couch by the fire, Mr. Ferdinand below closed his discussion with the upper housemaid, and the former rapidly came down, the latter up, stairs as the roll of wheels broke through the silence of the square.
Gustavus, in an attitude of bridled curiosity, was posed beneath a polar bear that held an electric lamp. His hand was laid upon the back of the armchair, and his round hazel eyes were turned expectantly towards the hall as his two masters joined him.
"Is all ready, Mr. Ferdinand?" said the Prophet, anxiously.
"All is ready, sir," replied the butler.
"Wheel the chair forward, Gustavus, if you please," said the Prophet. "Mrs. Merillia must not be dropped. Remember that."
"Not be dropped, sir—no."
The chair ran forward on its amicable castors as a carriage was heard to stop outside. Mr. Ferdinand flung open the portal, and the Prophet glided out excitedly upon the step.
"Well?" he cried, "well?"
A footman, in a long drab coat with red facings, was preparing to get off the box of a smart brougham, but before he could reach the pavement, a charming head, covered with a lace cap, was thrust out of the window, and a musical and almost girlish voice cried,—
"All nonsense, Hennessey, all rubbish! Saturn don't know what he's talkin' about. Look!"
The carriage door was vivaciously opened from the inside and a delightful little old lady, dressed in brown silk, with a long, cheerful pointed nose, rosy cheeks, and chestnut hair—that almost mightn't have been a wig in certain lights—prepared to leap forth without waiting for the reverent assistance that the Prophet, flanked by Mr. Ferdinand and Gustavus, was in waiting to afford.
As she jumped, she began to cry, "Not much wrong with me, is there, Hennessey?" but before the sentence was completed she had caught her neat foot in her brown silk gown, had stumbled from the step of the carriage to the pavement, had twisted her pretty ankle, had reeled and almost fallen, had been caught by the Prophet and Mr. Ferdinand, borne tenderly into the hall, and placed in the armchair which the terrified Gustavus, with almost enraged ardour, drove forward to receive her. As she sank down in it, helpless, Mrs. Merillia exclaimed, with unabated vivacity,—
"It's happened, Hennessey, it's happened! But it was my own doin' and yours. You shouldn't have prophesied at your age, and I shouldn't have jumped at mine.
"Dearest grannie!" cried the Prophet, on his knees beside her, "how grieved, how shocked I am! Is it—is it—"
He nodded. Mechanically Mr. Ferdinand nodded. Gustavus let his powdered head drop, too, in imitation of his superiors.
"I'll tell you in the drawin'—room."
She placed her pretty, mittened hands upon the arms of the chair, and gave a little wriggle, trying to get up. Then she cried out musically,—
"No, I must be carried up. Mr. Ferdinand!"
"Is Gustavus to be trusted?"
"Trusted, ma'am!" cried Mr. Ferdinand, looking at Gustavus, who had assumed an expression of pale and pathetic dignity. "Trusted—a London footman! Oh, ma'am!"
His voice failed. He choked and began to rummage in the pocket of his black tail coat for his perfumed handkerchief.
"T'st, t'st! I mean his arms," said Mrs. Merillia, patting her delicate hands quickly on the chair. "Can he carry me?"
The countenance of Mr. Ferdinand cleared, while Gustavus eagerly extended his right arm, bent it sharply, and allowed his magnificent biceps to rise up in sudden majesty. Mrs. Merillia was reassured.
"Hoist me to the drawin'-room, then," she said. "Hennessey, will you walk behind?"
The procession was formed, and the little old lady proceeded by a succession of jerks to the upper floor, her silk gown rustling against the balusters, and her tiny feet dangling loosely in mid-air, while her long and elegant head nodded each time Mr. Ferdinand and Gustavus pranced carefully sideways to a higher step. The Prophet followed solicitously behind, with hands outstretched to check any dangerous recoil. His face was very grave, but not entirely unhappy.
"Set me down by the fire," said Mrs. Merillia, when she found herself being smoothly propelled through the atmosphere of the drawing-room.
The menials obeyed with breathless assiduity.
"And now bring me a sandwich, a glass of toast and water and a fan, if you please. Yes, put the footstool well under me."
"Dearest grannie," said the Prophet, when the men had retired, "are you in great pain?"
"No, Hennessey. Are you?"
Mrs. Merillia's green eyes twinkled.
"Yes, at my accident. For my ankle is sprained, I'm almost sure, and I shall have to lie up presently in wet bandages. Tell me, are you really pained that I have had the accident you prophesied?"
She glanced from her grandson to the telescope that pointed toward the stars and back again.
"I am, indeed, sincerely grieved," the Prophet answered with genuine emotion.
"Yes. But if I'd jumped out all right, and was sittin' here now in a perfect condition of health, you'd have been sincerely grieved, too."
"I hope not, grannie," said the Prophet. But he looked meditative.
Mr. Ferdinand brought the toast and water, the sandwich and the fan. When he had trodden across the carpet out of the room Mrs. Merillia continued,—
"Hennessey, you see where this prophetic business is leadin' you. It has made you charmed at my accident. Yes, it has."
She spoke without any pathos, humorously indeed, in a bright tone full of common sense. And she nodded at him over her toast and water with a chaffing, demure smile. But the Prophet winced and put his hand to his thick brown hair.
"No, no," he cried quickly. "That's impossible. It can't be." But the statements sounded like perturbed questions.
"Think!" said his grandmother, looking down at her poor, helpless foot as it lay on the velvet stool. "If I hadn't had an accident to-night, you'd have been obliged to think ill of—of—which of them was it that had the impertinence to talk my affairs over with you?"
"Mercury and Uranus, Jupiter, Saturn and Venus," said the Prophet with almost terrible gravity.
"Exactly. I always have thought ill of the last, but that's nothin' to do with it. Weigh me in the balance against five planets—are they all planets?—and how do the scales go? You see, Hennessey!"
The Prophet looked much distressed. He saw his beloved grandmother by the fire and the bright stars twinkling through the frosty window-panes. He thought of his telescope, of Sir Tiglath, of Mr. Malkiel, and of the future, and the velvety blue walls of the drawing-room seemed to spin round him.
"Prophecy," continued Mrs. Merillia, fanning herself till the lace lappets of her priceless cap fluttered above her orderly and clasping wig, "is dangerous, for often it can cause its own fulfilment. If you hadn't said that because of a certain conjunction of planets—or whatever it was—in my horoscope, I should have an accident to-night, I shouldn't have jumped out of the brougham. I should have waited for Mr. Ferdinand to assist me, as befits a gentlewoman."
"But, grannie, I assure you I was most anxious to save you. I hoped I had made a mistake in your horoscope. I did, really. I was so nervous that I sent to Mr. Malkiel while you were at the theatre and implored him to look into the matter as an expert."
"Mr. Malkiel! Who is he? Do we know him?"
"No. But we know his marvellous Almanac."
"The Almanac person! Why, Malkiel is surely a myth, Hennessey, a number of people, a company, a syndicate, or something of that kind."
"So I thought, grannie. But I have made inquiries—through a detective agency—and I have discovered that he is one person; in fact, a man, just like you and me."
"Rather an odd man then! Is he in the Red Book?"
"No. He is, I understand, of a very retiring and secretive disposition. In fact, I have had great difficulty in learning anything about him. But at length I have discovered that he receives and answers letters at an address in London."
"Indeed. Where is it?"
"Jellybrand's Library, Eleven Hundred Z, Shaftesbury Avenue. I sent a boy messenger there to-day."
"Did you receive a reply?"
"No. I think the boy—although Mr. Ferdinand tells me he wore four medals, I presume for courage—must have become nervous on perceiving Mr. Malkiel's name on the envelope, have thrown the note down a grating, and bolted before he reached the place, though he said—on his Bible oath, I understand from Mr. Ferdinand—he delivered the note. In any case I got no answer. How are you feeling?"
"Twisted, but prophetic. I foretell that my ankle will be swelled beyond recognition to-morrow. Help me to bed, Hennessey."
The Prophet flew to his dear relative's assistance, and Mrs. Merillia endeavoured to rise and to lean upon his anxious arm. After a struggle, however, in which the Prophet took part and two chairs were overset, she was obliged to desist.
"You must ring the bell, Hennessey," she said. "Mr. Ferdinand and Gustavus must carry me to bed in the chair."
The Prophet sprang tragically to the bell. It was answered. The procession was re-formed, and Mrs. Merillia was carried to bed, still smiling, nodding at each stair and bearing herself with admirable courage.
As Mr. Ferdinand and Gustavus descended to the basement after the completion of their unusual task, the latter said solemnly,—
"However should master have come to know as the missis wouldn't be able to put foot to floor this night, Mr. Ferdinand? However?"
"I cannot answer you, Gustavus," Mr. Ferdinand replied, shaking his broad and globe-like head, round whose bald cupola the jet-black hair was brushed in two half moons decorated with a renowned "butler's own special pomade."
"Well, Mr. Ferdinand," rejoined Gustavus, stretching out one hand for pale ale, the other for French Revolution, "I don't like it."
"Why, Gustavus?" inquired Mr. Ferdinand, preparing to resume his discussion with the accommodating upper housemaid. "Why?"
"Because it seems strange like, Mr. Ferdinand," said Gustavus, lifting the glass to his lips, the French Revolution to his eyes.
"It do seem strange, Gustavus," answered Mr. Ferdinand, leaving out the "like" in a cultivated manner. "It do."
In the drawing-room the Prophet stood, with clenched hands, gazing through the telescope at Mercury and Uranus, Jupiter, Saturn and Venus, while, on the second floor, Mrs. Fancy Quinglet, Mrs. Merillia's devoted, but occasionally disconcerting, maid, swathed her mistress's ankle in bandages previously steeped in cold water and in vinegar.
MALKIEL THE SECOND IS BETRAYED BY THE YOUNG LIBRARIAN
Mrs. Merillia's accident made a very deep impression upon the Prophet's mind. He thought it over carefully, and desired to discuss it in all its bearings with Mrs. Fancy Quinglet, who had been his confidante for full thirty years. Mrs. Fancy—who had not been married—was no longer a pretty girl. Indeed it was possible that she had never, even in her heyday, been otherwise than moderately plain. Now, at the age of fifty-one and a half, she was a faithful creature with a thin, pendulous nose, a pale, hysteric eye, a tendency to cold in the head and chilblains in the autumn of the year, and a somewhat incoherent and occasionally frenzied turn of mind. Argument could never at any time have had much effect upon her nature, and as she grew towards maturity its power over her most markedly decreased. This fact was recognised by everybody, last of all by Mrs. Merillia, who was at length fully convinced of the existence of certain depths in her maid's peculiar character by the following circumstance.
Mrs. Merillia had a bandy-legged dachshund called Beau, whose name was for many years often affectionately, and quite correctly, pronounced by Fancy Quinglet. One day, however, she chanced to see it written upon paper—B.E.A.U.
"Whatever does that mean, ma'am?" she asked of Mrs. Merillia.
"Why, Beau, of course, Beau—the dog. What should it mean?"
"Bow?" cried Fancy. "Is he writ so?"
"Of course, silly girl. It is written Beau, and you can pronounce it as you would pronounce a bow of ribbon."
Fancy said no more, though it was easy to see that she was much shaken by this circumstance. But she could never afterwards be induced to utter her favourite's name. She was physically unable to speak the word so strangely, so almost impiously, spelt. This she declared with tears. Persuasion and argument were unavailing. Henceforth Beau was always called by her "the dog," and it was obvious that, had she been led out to the stake, she must have burned rather than save herself by a pronouncing of the combination of letters by which she had been so long deceived.
Such an inflexible mind had Mrs. Fancy, to whom the Prophet now applied himself with gestures almost Sinaic.
She was dressed in mouse-coloured grenadine, and was seated in a small chamber opening out of Mrs. Merillia's bedroom, engaged in what she called "plain tatting."
"Fancy," said the Prophet, entering and closing the door carefully, "you know me well."
"From the bottle, sir," she answered, darting the bone implements in and out.
"Have you ever thought—has it ever occurred to you—"
"I can't say it has, sir," Fancy replied, with the weak decision peculiar to her.
She was ever prone thus to answer questions before they were fully asked, or could be properly understood by her, and from such premature decisions as she hastened to give she could never afterwards be persuaded to retreat. Knowing this the Prophet said rapidly,—
"Fancy, if a man finds out that he is a prophet what ought he to do?"
The lady's-maid rattled her bones.
"Let it alone, sir," she answered. "Let it alone, Master Hennessey."
"Well, but what d'you mean by that?"
"What I say sir. I can't speak different, nor mean other."
"But can't you explain, Fancy?"
"Oh, Master Hennessey, the lives that have been wrecked, the homes that have been broke up by explainings!"
Her eye seemed suddenly lit from within by some fever of sad, worldly knowledge.
"Well, but—" the Prophet began.
"I know it, Master Hennessey, and I can't know other."
She sighed, and her gaze became fixed like that of a typhoid patient in a dream.
"Them that knows other let them declare it," she ejaculated. "I say again, as I did afore—the homes that have been broken up by explainings!"
She tatted. The Prophet bowed before her decision and left the apartment feeling rather hungry. Fancy Quinglet's crumbs were not always crumbs of comfort. He resolved to apply again to Mr. Malkiel, and this time to make the application in person. But before he did so he thought it right to tell Mrs. Merillia, who was still steeped in bandages, of his intention. He therefore went straight to her room from Fancy Quinglet's. Mrs. Merillia was lying upon a couch reading a Russian novel. A cup of tea stood beside her upon a table near a bowl of red and yellow tulips, a canary was singing in its cage amid a shower of bird-seed, and "the dog" lay stretched before the blazing fire upon a milk-white rug, over which a pale ray of winter sunshine fell. As the Prophet came in Mrs. Merillia glanced up.
"Hennessey," she said, "you are growin' to look like Lord Brandling, when he combined the Premiership with the Foreign Office and we had that dreadful complication with Iceland. My dear boy, you are corrugated with thought and care. What is the matter? My ankle is much better. You need not be anxious about me. Has Venus been playing you another jade's trick?"
The Prophet sat down and stroked Beau's sable back with his forefinger.
"I have scarcely looked at Venus since you were injured, grannie," he answered. "I have scarcely dared to."
"I'm glad to hear it. Since the days of Adonis she has always had a dangerous influence on young men. If you want to look at anybody, look at that pretty, sensible cousin of Robert Green's."
"Lady Enid. Yes, she is sensible. I believe she is in Hampshire staying with the Churchmores."
He looked calmer for a moment, but the corrugated expression quickly returned.
"Grannie," he said, "I think it my duty to make an effort to see Mr. Malkiel."
"The Almanac man. What do you want with him?"
She tapped one of her small, mittened hands over the other and slightly twisted her long and pointed nose.
"I want to learn his views on this strange faculty of prophecy. Has it ever occurred to you that among all our immense acquaintance we don't number a single prophet?"
"One can't know everybody, Hennessey. And I believe that prophets always spring from the lower classes. The line must be drawn somewhere even in these days."
"Why not draw it at millionaires then?"
"I should like to. Somethin' will have to be done. If the nobodies continue to go everywhere the very few somebodies that are left will soon go nowhere.
"Perhaps they do go nowhere. Perhaps that is why we have never met a prophet."
Mrs. Merillia looked up sharply, with her wide, cheerful mouth set awry in a shrewd smile that seemed to say "So ho!" She recognised a strange, new note of profound, though not arrogant, self-respect in her grandson.
"Prophets," Hennessey added more gently, "have always been inclined to dwell in the wilderness."
"But where can you find a wilderness in these days?" asked Mrs. Merillia, still smiling. "Even Hammersmith is becomin' quite a fashionable neighbourhood. And you say that the Almanac man lives in Shaftesbury Avenue, only half a minute from Piccadilly Circus."
"My dear grannie," he corrected her, "I said he received letters there. I don't know where he lives."
"How are you goin' to find him then?"
"I shall call this afternoon at eleven hundred Z."
"To see if he has run in for a postcard! And what sort of person do you expect him to be?"
"Something quite out of the common."
Mrs. Merillia screwed up her eyes doubtfully.
"I hope you won't be disappointed. How many editions have there been of the Almanac?"
"Seventy yearly editions."
"Then Malkiel must be a very old man."
"But this Mr. Malkiel is Malkiel the Second."
"One of a dynasty! That alters the case. Perhaps he's a young man about town. There are young men about town, I believe, who have addresses at clubs and libraries, and sleep on doorsteps, or in the Park. Well, Hennessey, I see you are getting fidgety. You had better be off. Buy me some roses for my room on your way home. I'm expectin' someone to have tea with the poor victim of prophecy this afternoon."
The Prophet kissed his grandmother, put on his overcoat and stepped into the square.
It was a bright, frosty, genial day, and he resolved to walk to Jellybrand's Library.
London was looking quite light-hearted in the dry, cold air, which set a bloom even upon the cheeks of the ambassadors who were about, and caused the butcher boys to appear like peonies. The crossing-sweepers swept nothing vigorously, and were rewarded with showers of pence from pedestrians delighting in the absence of mud. Crystal as some garden of an eternal city seemed the green Park, wrapped in its frosty mantle embroidered with sunbeams. Even the drivers of the "growlers" were moderately cheerful—a very rare occurrence—and the blind man of Piccadilly smiled as he roared along the highway, striking the feet of the charitable with the wand which was the emblem of his profession.
Only the Prophet was solemn on this delicious afternoon. People looked at him and thought that he must surely be the richest man of the town. His face was so sad.
He wound across the whirlpool, where the green image postures to the human streams that riot below it. He saw beneath their rooves of ostrich feathers the girls shake their long earrings above sweet violets and roses fainting with desire to be bought by country cousins.
"Where is eleven hundred Z, if you please?" he asked the Shaftesbury Avenue policeman.
"Jellybrand's sir? On the right between the cream shop and the engine warehouse, just opposite the place where they sell parrots, after that there patent medicine depot."
The Prophet bowed, thinking of the blessings of knowledge. In a moment he stood before the library and glanced at its dirty window. He saw several letters lying against the glass. One was addressed to "Miss Minerva Partridge." He stepped in, wondering what she was like.
Jellybrand's Library was a small, square room containing a letter rack, a newspaper stand, a bookcase and a counter. It was fitted up with letters, papers, books, and a big boy with a bulging head. The last-named stood behind the counter, stroking his irregular profile with one hand, and throwing a box of J nibs into the air and catching it with the other. Upon the Prophet's entrance this youth obligingly dropped the nibs accidentally upon the floor, and arranged his sharp and anemic face in an expression of consumptive inquiry. The Prophet approached the counter softly, and allowed the sable with which his coat was trimmed to rest against it.
"Did a boy messenger call here a few days ago with a note for Mr. Malkiel?" he asked.
The young librarian assumed an attitude of vital suspicion and the expression of a lynx.
"For Malkiel the Second, sir?" he replied in a piercing soprano voice.
"Yes," said the Prophet. "A boy messenger with four medals. There was a crest on the envelope—an elephant rampant surrounded by a swarm of bees."
A dogged look of combined terror and resolution overspread the young librarian's countenance.
"There's been no elephant and no swarm of bees in here," he said with trembling curtness.
"You are sure you would have remembered the circumstance if there had been?"
"Rather! What do you think? We don't allow things of them sort in here, I can tell you."
The Prophet drew out half a sovereign, upon which a ray of sunshine immediately fell as if in benediction.
"Does Mr. Malkiel—?
"Malkiel the Second," interrupted the young librarian, whose pinkish eyes winked at the illumination of the gold.
"Malkiel the Second ever call here—in person?"
"In person?" said the young librarian, very suspiciously.
"I don't know about in person. He calls here."
"Ah," said the Prophet, recognising in the youth a literary sense that instinctively rejected superfluity. "He does call. May I ask when?"
"When he chooses," said the young librarian, and he winked again.
"Does he choose often?"
"He's got his day, like Miss Partridge and lots of 'em."
"I see. Is his day—by chance—a Thursday?"
It was a Thursday afternoon.
"I don't know about by chance," rejoined the young librarian, his literary sense again coming into play. "But it's—"
At this moment the library door opened, and a tall, thin, middle-aged man walked in sideways with his feet very much turned out to right and left of him.
"Any letters, Frederick Smith?" he said in a hollow voice, on reaching the counter.
"Two, Mr. Sagittarius, I believe," replied the young librarian, moving with respectful celerity towards the letter rack.
The Prophet started and looked eagerly at the newcomer. His eyes rested upon an individual whose face was comic in outline with a serious expression, and whose form suggested tragic farce dressed to represent commonplace, as seen at Margate and elsewhere. A top hat, a spotted collar, a pink shirt, a white satin tie, a chocolate brown frock coat, brown trousers and boots, and a black overcoat thrown open from top to bottom—these appurtenances, clerkly in their adherence to a certain convention, could not wholly disguise the emotional expression that seems sometimes to lurk in shape. The lines of Mr. Sagittarius defied their clothing. His shoulders gave the lie to the chocolate brown frock coat. His legs breathed defiance to the trousers that sheathed them. One could, in fancy, see the former shrugged in all the abandonment of third-act despair, behold the latter darting wildly for the cover afforded by a copper, a cupboard, or any other friendly refuge of those poor victims of ludicrous and terrific circumstance who are so sorely smitten and afflicted upon the funny stage.
Mr. Sagittarius, in fine, seemed a man dressed in a mask that was unable to deceive. His lean face was almost absurd in its irregularity, its high cheek-bones and deep depressions, its sharp nose, extensive mouth and nervous chin. But the pale blue eyes that were its soul shone plaintively beneath their shaggy, blonde eyebrows, and even an application of pomade almost hysterically lavish could not entirely conceal the curling gloom of the heavy, matted hair.
"Yes, two, Mr. Sagittarius," cried the young librarian, approaching from the rack.
The gentleman held out a hand covered with a yellow dogskin glove.
"Thank you, Frederick Smith," he said.
And he turned to leave the building. But the Prophet intercepted him.
"Excuse me," said the Prophet. "I beg your pardon, but—but—" he looked at the young librarian and accidentally let the half sovereign fall on the counter. It gave the true ring. "I believe I heard you mention—let drop the name Mr. Sagittarius."
"I don't know about let drop," began the youth in his usual revising manner. "But I—"
At this point the gentleman in question began to move rather hastily sideways towards the door. The Prophet followed him up and got before him near the letter rack, while the young librarian retrieved the half sovereign and bit it with his teeth.
"I really beg your pardon," said the Prophet, while Mr. Sagittarius stood still in the violent attitude of one determined to dodge so long as he has breath. "I am not at all in the habit of"—Mr. Sagittarius dodged—"of intruding upon strangers—" Mr. Sagittarius dodged again with such extraordinary abruptness and determination that he nearly caused the young librarian to swallow the Prophet's golden bribe. "I see you don't believe me," the Prophet continued, flushing pink but still holding his ground, and indeed trying to turn Mr. Sagittarius's flank by a strategic movement of almost military precision. "I see that plainly, but—" Mr. Sagittarius ducked to the left, endeavouring to cover the manoeuvre by an almost simultaneous and extremely passionate feint towards the Prophet's centre, which was immediately withdrawn in good order—"but your remark—arkable name, Saag—itt-ittarius, suggested to me that you are rea-eally the man I seek."
He had now got Mr. Sagittarius into a very awkward bit of country between the letter P. in the rack, under which reposed Miss Partridge's correspondence, and the newspaper bureau, with the counter immediately on his rear, and taking advantage of this circumstance, he continued rapidly:
"May I ask whether you recently received a letter—one moment!—envelope—crest—I only want to know if you have received—only—an elephant rampant—swarm of—of bees—"
"I have never received a rampant elephant and a swarm of bees," cried Mr. Sagittarius with every symptom of unbridled terror. "Help, Frederick Smith!"
"Right you are, Malkiel the Second!" cried the young librarian, hastily pocketing the half sovereign and making a feverish lunge at nothing in particular over the counter. "Right you are!"
"Malkiel the Second!" ejaculated the Prophet. "Then you are the man I seek."
Malkiel the Second—for it was indeed he—sank back against the counter in an attitude of abandoned prostration that would have made a fortune of a comic actor.
"I trusted to Jellybrand's," he said, drawing from his tail pocket a white handkerchief covered with a pattern of pink storks in flight. "I trusted to Jellybrand's and Jellybrand's has betrayed me. Oh, Frederick Smith!"
He put a stork to each eye. The young librarian assumed an injured air.
"It was the agitation did it, Mr. Sagittarius," he said. "If you hadn't a-kep' dodging I shouldn't have lost my memory."
And he looked avariciously at the Prophet, who smiled at him reassuringly and drew forth a card case.
"I feel sure, Mr. Sag—Malkiel—"
"Malkiel the Second, sir, is my name if it is betrayed by Jellybrand's," said that gentleman with sudden dignity. "There is no need of any mister."
"I beg your pardon," said the Prophet, handing his card. "That is my name and address. May I beg you to forgive my apparent anxiety to make your acquaintance, and implore you to grant me a few moments of private conversation on a matter of the utmost importance?"
Malkiel the Second read the card.
"Berkeley Square," he said. "The Berkeley Square?"
"Exactly, the Berkeley Square," said the Prophet, modestly.
"Not the one at Brixton Rise behind the Kimmins's mews?" said Malkiel the Second, suspiciously.
"Certainly not. The one near Grosvenor Square."
"That's better," said Malkiel, upon whom the Prophet's address had evidently made a good impression. "Kimmins's is no class at all. Had you come from there, I—but what may you want with me?"
The Prophet glanced significantly at the young librarian, who was leaning upon the counter in a tense, keyhole position, with his private ear turned somewhat ostentatiously towards the two speakers.
"I can tell you in an inner room," he murmured, in his most ingratiating manner.
"You're certain it's not Berkeley Square behind Kimmins's?" said Malkiel, with a last flicker of suspicion.
"Frederick Smith," said Malkiel the Second, "since Jellybrand's has betrayed me Jellybrand's must abide the consequences. Show this gentleman and me to the parlour."
"Right, Mr. Sagittarius," replied the young librarian whose memory had again become excellent. "But Miss Minerva is coming at three-thirty."
"Has she bespoke the parlour, Frederick Smith?"
"Yes, Mr. Sagittarius."
"Then she can't have it. That's all. Jellybrand's must abide the full consequences of my betrayal. Go forward, Frederick Smith."
The young librarian went forward towards a door of deal and ground glass which he threw open with some ceremony.
"The parlour, gents," he said.
"After you, sir, after you," said Malkiel the Second, making a side step and bringing his feet together in the first position.
"No, no," rejoined the Prophet, gently drawing the sage to the front, and inserting him into the parlour in such an ingenious manner that he did not perceive the journey of a second half sovereign from the person of the Prophet to that of the young librarian, who thereafter closed the deal and ground glass door, and returned to the counter, whistling in an absent-minded manner, "I'm a Happy Millionaire from Colorado."
THE TWO PROPHETS PARTAKE OF "CREAMING FOAM."
"And now, sir," said Malkiel the Second, pointing to a couple of cane chairs which, with the table, endeavoured, rather unsuccessfully, to furnish forth the parlour at Jellybrand's, "now sir, what do you want with me?"
As he spoke he threw his black overcoat wide open, seated himself on the edge of one of the chairs in a dignified attitude, and crossed his feet—which were not innocent of spats—one over the other.
The Prophet was resolved to dare all, and he, therefore, answered boldly,—
"Malkiel the Second, I wish to speak to you as one prophet to another."
At this remark Malkiel started violently, and darted a searching glance from beneath his blonde eyebrows at Hennessey.
"Do you live in the Berkeley Square, sir," he said, "and claim to be a prophet?"
"I do," said Hennessey, with modest determination.
Malkiel smiled, a long and wreathed smile that was full of luscious melancholy and tragic sweetness.
"The assumption seems rather ridiculous—forgive me," he exclaimed. "The Berkeley Square! Whatever would Madame say?"
"Madame?" said the Prophet, inquiringly.
"Madame Malkiel, or Madame Sagittarius, as she always passes."
"My honoured lady," said Malkiel, with pride. "More to me almost than any lunar guide or starry monitor. What, oh, what would she say to a prophet from the Berkeley Square?"
He burst into hollow laughter, shaking upon the cane chair till its very foundations seemed threatened as by an earthquake, and was obliged to apply the flight of storks to his eyes before he could in any degree recover his equanimity. At length he glanced up with tears rolling down his cheeks.
"Excuse me, sir," he said. "But what can you know of prophecy in such a fashionable neighbourhood, close to Grosvenor Square and within sight, as one may say, of Piccadilly? Oh, dear, oh, dear!"
"But really," said the Prophet, who had flushed red, but who still spoke with pleasant mildness, "what influence can neighbourhood have upon such a superterrestrial matter?"
"Did Isaiah reside in the Berkeley Square, sir?"
"I fancy not. Still—"
"I fancy not, too," rejoined Malkiel. "Nor Bernard Wilkins either, or any prophet that ever I heard of. Why, even Jesse Jones lives off Perkin's Road, Wandsworth Common, though he does keep a sitting-room in Berners Street just to see his clients in, and he is a very low-class person, even for a prophet. No, no, sir, Madame is quite right. She married me despite the damning—yes, I say, sir, the damning fact that I was a prophet—" here Malkiel the Second brought down one of the dogskin gloves with violence upon the rickety parlour table—"but before ever we went to the Registrar's she made me take a solemn oath. What was it, do you say?"
"Yes, I do," said Hennessey, leaning forward and gazing into Malkiel's long and excited face round which the heavy mat of pomaded hair vibrated.
"It was this, sir—to mix with no prophets so long as we both should live. Prophets, she truly said, are low-class, even dirty, persons. Their parties, their 'at homes' are shoddy. They live in fourth-rate neighbourhoods. They burn gas and sit on horsehair. Only in rare cases do they have any bathroom in their houses. Their influence would be bad for the children when they begin to grow up. How could Corona make her debut"—Malkiel pronounced it debbew—"in prophetic circles? How could she come out in Drakeman's Villas, Tooting, or dance with such young fellers as frequent Hagglin's Buildings, Clapham Rise? How could she do it, sir?"
"I don't know, I'm sure," gasped the Prophet.
"Nor I, sir, nor I," continued Malkiel, with unabated fervour. "And it's the same with Capricornus. My boy shall not be thrown in with prophets. Did Malkiel the First start the Almanac for that? Did he foster it till it went from the poor servant girl's attic into the gilded apartments of the aristocracy and lay even upon Royal tables for that? Did he, I say?"
"I haven't an idea," said the Prophet.
"He did not, sir. And I—I myself"—he arranged the diamond pin in his white satin tie with an almost imperial gesture—"have not followed upon the lines he laid down without imbibing, as I may truly say, the lofty spirit that guided him, the lofty social spirit, as Madame calls it. There have been other prophets, I know. There are other prophets. I do not attempt to deny it. But where else than here, sir"—the dogskin glove lay upon the breast of the chocolate brown frock coat—"where else than here will you find a prophet who hides his identity beneath an alias, who remains, as Madame always says, perdew, and who conducts his profession on honourable and business-like lines? Am I dressed like a prophet?" He suddenly brought his doubled fist down upon the Prophet's knee.
"No," cried Hennessey. "Certainly not!"
"Why, sir, how can I be when I tell you that Merriman & Saxster of Regent Street are my tailors, and have been since my first pair of trouserings? Do I bear myself prophetically? I think you will agree that I do not when you know that I am frequently mistaken for an outside broker—yes, sir, and that this has even happened upon the pier at Margate. You have seen my demeanour at Jellybrand's. You saw me come into the library. You saw my manner with Frederick Smith. Was it assuming? Did I lord it over the lad?"
"No. I might have been anybody, any ordinary person living in Grosvenor Place, or, like yourself, in the Berkeley Square. And so it ever is. Other prophets there are—possibly men of a certain ability even in that direction—but there is only one Malkiel, only one who attends strictly to business, who draws a good income from the stars, sir, and satisfies the public month in, month out, without making a fuss about it. Wait a few years, sir, only wait!"
"Certainly," said the Prophet. "I will."
"Wait till the children are grown up. Wait till Capricornus has got his Latin by heart and gone to Oxford. Then, and only then, you will know whether Malkiel the Second is the exception to the rule of prophets. Yes, and Madame shall know it, too. She trusted me, sir, as only a woman can. She knew I was a prophet and had a prophet for a father before me. And yet she trusted me. It was a daring thing to do. Many would call it foolhardy. Wouldn't they, sir?"
The dogskin glove was raised. The Prophet hastened to reply,—
"I daresay they would."
"But she was not afraid, and she shall have her reward. Corona shall never set foot in Drakeman's Villas, nor breathe the air of Hagglin's. I must have a glass of water, I must, sir, indeed."
He gasped heavily and was about to rise, when the Prophet said:
"Join me in a glass of wine."
"I should be delighted," Malkiel answered. "Delighted, I'm sure, but I doubt whether Jellybrand's—"
"Could not Frederick Smith go out and fetch us a—a pint bottle of champagne?" said the Prophet, playing a desperate card in the prophetic game.
An expression almost of joviality overspread the tragic farce of Malkiel's appearance.
"We'll see," he answered, opening the deal door. "Frederick Smith!"
"Here, Mr. Sagittarius," cried the soprano voice of the young librarian.
"Can you leave the library for a moment, Frederick Smith?"
The Prophet held up a sovereign over Malkiel the Second's narrow shoulder.
"Yes, Mr. Sagittarius, for half a mo!"
"Ah! Where is the nearest champagne, Frederick Smith?"
"Champagne, I said, Frederick Smith."
"I daresay I could get a dozen at Gillow's next the rabbit shop," replied the young librarian, thoughtfully.
The Prophet shuddered to the depths of his being, but he was now embarked upon his enterprise and must crowd all sail.
"Go to Gillow's," he exclaimed, with an assumption of feverish geniality, "and bring back a couple of rabbits—I mean bottles. They must be dry. You understand?"
The young librarian looked out of the window.
"Oh, I'll manage that, sir. It ain't raining," he replied carelessly.
The Prophet stifled a cry of horror as he pressed the sovereign into the young librarian's hand.
"You can keep the change," he whispered, adding in a tremulous voice, "Tell me—tell me frankly—do you think in your own mind that there will be any?"
"I don't know about in my own mind," rejoined the young librarian, drawing a tweed cap from some hidden recess beneath the counter. "But if you only want two bottles I expect there'll be ten bob over."
The Prophet turned as pale as ashes and had some difficulty in sustaining himself to the parlour, where he and Malkiel the Second sat down in silence to await the young librarian's return. Frederick Smith came back in about five minutes, with an ostentatious-looking bottle smothered in gold leaf under each arm.
"There was four shillings apiece to pay, sir," he remarked to the Prophet as he placed them upon the table. "I got the 'our own make' brand with the 'creaming foam' upon the corks."
The Prophet bent his head. He was quite unable to speak, but he signed to the young librarian to open one of the bottles and pour its contents into the two tumblers of thick and rather dusty glass that Jellybrand's kept for its moments of conviviality. Malkiel the Second lifted the goblet to the window and eyed the beaded nectar with an air of almost rakish anticipation.
"Ready, sir?" he said, turning to the Prophet, who, with a trembling hand, followed his example.
"Quite—ready," said the Prophet, shutting his eyes.
"Then," rejoined Malkiel the Second in a formal voice, "here's luck!"
He held the tumbler to his lips, waiting for the Prophet's reply to give the signal for a unanimous swallowing of the priceless wine.
"Luck," echoed the Prophet in a faltering voice.
As he gradually recovered his faculties, he heard Malkiel the Second say, with an almost debauched accent,—
"That puts heart into a man. I shall give Gillows an order. Leave us, Frederick Smith, and remember that Miss Minerva is on no account to be let in here till this gentleman and I have finished the second bottle."
The Prophet could not resist a wild movement of protest, which was apparently taken by the young librarian as a passionate gesture of dismissal. For he left the room rapidly and closed the door with decision behind him.
"And now, sir, I am at your service," said Malkiel the Second, courteously. "Let me pour you another glass of wine."
The Prophet assented mechanically. It seemed strange to have to die so young, and with so many plans unfulfilled, but he felt that it was useless to struggle against destiny and he drank again. Then he heard a voice say,—
"And now, sir, I am all attention."
He looked up. He saw the parlour, the ground glass of the door, the tumblers and bottles on the table, the sharp features and strained, farcical eyes of Malkiel framed in the matted, curling hair. Then all was not over yet. There was something still in store for him. He sat up, pushed the creaming four-shilling foam out of his sight, turned to his interlocutor, and with a great effort collected himself.
"I want to consult you," he began, "about my strange powers."
Malkiel smiled with easy irony.
"Strange powers in Berkeley Square!" he ejaculated. "The Berkeley Square! But go on, sir. What are they?"
"Having been led to study the stars," continued the Prophet with more composure and growing earnestness, "I felt myself moved to make a prophecy."
"Weather forecast, I suppose," remarked Malkiel, laconically.
"How did you know that?"
"The easiest kind, sir, the number one beginner's prophecy. Capricornus used to tell Madame what the weather'd be as soon as he could talk. But go on, sir, go on, I beg."
The Prophet began to feel rather less like Isaiah, but he continued, with some determination,—
"If that had been all, I daresay I should have thought very little of the matter."
"No, you wouldn't sir. Who thinks their first baby a little one? Can you tell me that?"
The Prophet considered the question for a moment. Then he answered,—
"Perhaps you're right."
"Perhaps so," rejoined Malkiel, indulgently. "Well, sir, what was your next attempt—in the Berkeley Square?"
The Prophet's sensitive nature winced under the obvious irony of the interrogation, but either the "creaming foam" had rendered him desperate, or he was to some extent steeled against the satire by the awful self-respect which had invaded him since Mrs. Merillia's accident. In any case he answered firmly,—
"Malkiel the Second, in Berkeley Square I had a relation—an honoured grandmother."
"You've the better of me there, sir. My parents and Madame's are all in Brompton Cemetery. Well, sir, you'd got an honoured grandmother in the Berkeley Square. What of it?"
"She was naturally elderly."
"And you predicted her death and she passed over. Very natural too, sir. The number two beginner's prophecy. Why, Corona—"
But at this point the Prophet broke in.
"Excuse me," he said in a scandalised voice, "excuse me, Malkiel the Second, she did nothing of the kind. Whatever my faults may be—and they are many, I am aware—I—I—"
He was greatly moved.
"Take another sup of wine, sir. You need it," said Malkiel.
The Prophet mechanically drank once more, grasping the edge of the table for support in the endurance of the four-bob ecstasy.
"You prophesied it and she didn't pass over, sir," continued Malkiel, with unaffected sympathy. "I understand the blow. It's cruel hard when a prophecy goes wrong. Why, even Madame—"
But at this point the Prophet broke in.
"You are mistaken," he cried. "Utterly mistaken."
Malkiel the Second drew himself up with dignity.
"In that case I will say no more," he remarked, pursing up his lengthy mouth and assuming a cast-iron attitude.
The Prophet perceived his mistake.
"Forgive me," he exclaimed. "It is my fault."
"Oh, no, sir. Not at all," rejoined Malkiel, with icy formality. "Pray let the fault be mine."
"I will not indeed. But let me explain. My beloved grandmother still lives, although I cast her horoscope and—"
"Indeed! very remarkable!"
"I mean—not although—but I thought I would cast her horoscope. And I did so."
"In the square?" asked Malkiel, with quiet, but piercing, irony.
"Yes," said the Prophet, with sudden heat. "Why not?"
Malkiel smiled with an almost paternal pity, as of a thoughtful father gazing upon the quaint and inappropriate antics of his vacant child.
"Why not, sir—if you prefer it?" he rejoined. "Pray proceed."
The Prophet's face was flushed, either by the "creaming foam," or by irritation, or by both.
"Surely," he began, in a choking voice, "surely the stars are the same whether they are looked at from Berkeley Square or from—from—or from"—he sought passionately for a violent contrast—"from Newington Butts," he concluded triumphantly.
"I have not the pleasure to have ever observed my guides from the neighbourhood of the Butts," said Malkiel, serenely. "But pray proceed, sir. I am all attention. You cast your honoured grandmother's horoscope—in the Berkeley Square."
The Prophet seized his glass, but some remnants of his tattered self-control still clung to him, and he put it down without seeking further madness from its contents.
"I did," he said firmly, even obstinately. "And I discovered—I say discovered that she was going to have an accident while on an evening expedition—or jaunt as you might perhaps prefer to call it."
"I should certainly call it so—in the case of a lady who was an honoured grandmother," said Malkiel the Second in assent.
"Well, Malkiel the Second," continued the Prophet, recovering his composure as he approached his coup, "my grandmother did have an accident, as I foretold."
"Did she have it in the square, sir?" asked Malkiel.
"And what if she did?" cried the Prophet with considerable testiness.
He was beginning to conceive a perfect hatred of the admirable neighbourhood, which he had loved so well.
"I merely ask for information, sir."
"The accident did take place in the square certainly, and on the very night for which I predicted it."
Malkiel the Second looked very thoughtful, even morose. He poured out another glass of champagne, drank it slowly in sips, and when the glass was empty ran the forefinger of his right hand slowly round and round its edge.
"Can Madame be wrong?" he ejaculated at length, in a muffled voice of meditation. "Can Madame be wrong?"
The Prophet gazed at him with profound curiosity, fascinated by the circular movement of the yellow dogskin finger, and by the inward murmur—so acutely mental—that accompanied it.
"Madame?" whispered the Prophet, drawing his cane chair noiselessly forward.
"Ah!" rejoined Malkiel, gazing upon him with an eye whose pupil seemed suddenly dilated to a most preternatural size. "Can she have been wrong all these many years?"
"What—what about?" murmured the Prophet.
Malkiel the Second leaned his matted head in his hands and replied, as if to himself,—
"Can it be that a prophet should live in Berkeley Square—not Kimmins's"—here he raised his head, and raked his companion with a glance that was almost fierce in its fervour of inquiry—"not Kimmins's but—the Berkeley Square?"
THE SECRET WATERS OF THE RIVER MOUSE
To this question the Prophet could offer no answer other than a bodily one. He silently presented himself to the gaze of Malkiel, instinctively squaring his shoulders, opening out his chest, and expanding his nostrils in an effort to fill as large a space in the atmosphere of the parlour as possible. And Malkiel continued to regard him with the staring eyes of one whose mind is seething with strange, upheaving thoughts and alarming apprehensions. Mutely the Prophet swelled and mutely Malkiel observed him swell, till a point was reached from which further progress—at least on the Prophet's part—was impossible. The Prophet was now as big as the structure of his frame permitted him to be, and apparently Malkiel realised the fact, for he suddenly dropped his eyes and exclaimed,—
"This matter must be threshed out thoroughly, Madame herself would wish it so."
He paused, drew his chair nearer to the Prophet's, took off a glove and continued,—
"Sir, you may be a prophet. You may have prophesied correctly in the Berkeley Square. But if you are, and if you have, remember this—that you have proved the self-sacrifice, the privation, the denial, the subterfuge, the mask, and the position of Sagittarius Lodge in its own grounds beside the River Mouse at Crampton St. Peter, N.—N., I said, sir—totally and entirely unnecessary. I will go further, sir, and I will say more. You have not only done that. You have also proved the sacred instinct of a woman, a respectable married woman—such as we must all reverence—false and deceived. Remember this, sir, remember all this, then search yourself thoroughly and say whether what you have told me is strictly true."
"I assure you—" began the Prophet, hastily.
But Malkiel sternly interrupted him.
"Search yourself, sir, I beg!" he cried.
"But upon my honour—"
"Hush, sir, hush! I beg, nay, I insist, that you search yourself thoroughly before you answer this momentous question."
The Prophet felt rather disposed to ask whether Malkiel expected him to examine his pockets and turn out his boots. However, he sat still while Malkiel drew out a large gold watch, held it solemnly in his hand for a couple of minutes and then returned it to the waistcoat.
"Now, sir," he said.
"I assure you," said the Prophet, "on my honour that all I have said is strictly true."
"And took place in the Berkeley Square?"
"And took place in the Berkeley Square."
Malkiel nodded morosely.
"It may have been chance," he said. "A weather forecast and an honoured grandmother may have been mere luck. Still it looks bad—very bad."
He sighed heavily, and seemed about to fall into a mournful reverie when the Prophet cried sharply,—
"Explain yourself, Malkiel the Second. You owe it to me to explain yourself. Why should my strange gift—"
"If you have it, sir," interrupted Malkiel, quickly.
"If I have it, very well—affect you? Why should it render the self-sacrifice and—and the position of—of Sagittarius Lodge on the river—the river—what river did you say—?"
"The River Mouse," rejoined Malkiel in a muffled voice, and shaking his head sadly.
"Exactly—on the River Mouse at Crompton—"
"Crampton St. Peter total—"
"Crampton St. Peter. N. That is the point."
"Very well—Crampton St. Peteren, totally and entirely unnecessary?"
"You desire my revelation, sir? You desire to enter into the bosom of a family that hitherto has dwelt apart, has lain as I may say perdew beside the secret waters of the River Mouse? Is it indeed so?"
"Oh, I beg your pardon," cried the Prophet, hastily. "I would not for the world intrude upon—"
"Those hallowed precincts! Well, perhaps you have the right. Jellybrand's has betrayed me to you. You know my name, my profession. Why should you not know more? Perhaps it is better so."
With the sudden energy of a man who is reckless of fate he seized his goblet, poured into it at least a shilling's worth of "creaming foam," drained it to the dregs and, shaking back his matted hair with a leonine movement of the head, exclaimed,—
"Malkiel the First, who founded the Almanac, lay perdew all his life."
"Beside the secret waters of the River Mouse?" the Prophet could not help interposing.
"No, sir. He would never have gone so far as that. But he lived and died in Susan Road beside the gas-works. He was a great man."
"I'm sure he was," said the Prophet, heartily.
"He wished me to live and die there too," said Malkiel. "But there are limits, sir, even to the forbearance of women. Madame was affected, painfully affected, by the gas, sir. It stank in her nostrils—to use a figure. And then there was another drawback that she could not get over."
"The sweeps, sir."
"I beg your pardon!" said the Prophet.
"I said—the sweeps."
"I heard you—well?"
"Being the only people that were not, in the whole road, made for loneliness, sir."
The Prophet was entirely bouleverse.
"I'm afraid I'm very stupid, but really I—" he began.
"Is it possible that you live in London, sir, and are not aware that Susan Road lies in the most sought-after portion of the sweeps' quarter?" said Malkiel, with pitying amazement.
The Prophet blushed with shame.
"I beg your pardon. Of course—I understand. Pray go on."
"It made for loneliness, sir."
"Their hours were not our hours. And then the professional colour! Madame said it was like living among the Sandwich Islanders. And so, to an extent, it was. My father had left a very tidy bit of money—a very tidy bit indeed, and we resolved to move. But where? That was the problem. For I was not as other men. I could not live like them—in the Berkeley Square."
He smiled with mournful superiority and continued,—
"At least I thought so then, and have done till to-day. Prophets—so my father believed, and so Madame—must be connected with the suburbs or with outlying districts. They must not, indeed they cannot, be properly prophetic within the radius. A central atmosphere would reduce them to the level of the conjuror or the muscular suggestionist. Malkiel the First, my father, was born himself in Peckham, and met my mother when coming through the rye."
He brushed aside a tear that flowed at this almost rustic recollection, and continued,—
"Yet Madame was wishful, and I was wishful too, that the children—if we had any—should not grow up Eastern. It was a natural and a beautiful desire, sir, was it not?"
"Oh, very," replied the Prophet, considerably confused.
"The habits and manners of the East, you see, sir, are not always in strict accordance with propriety. Are they?"
Before the Prophet had time to realise that this question was merely rhetorical, he began,—
"From what Professor Seligman says in his The Inner History of Baghdad, I feel sure—"
"Nor are the customs of the East quite what many a clergyman would approve of," continued Malkiel. "Yet even this was not what weighed most with Madame."
"What was it then?" inquired the Prophet, deeply interested.
"Sir, it was the Eastern language."
"Could we let our children learn to speak it? Could we bear to launch them in life, handicapped, weighed down by such a tongue? Could we do this?"
Again the Prophet mistook the nature of the question, and was led to reply,—
"Certainly English children speaking only Arabic might well be at some loss in ordinary conver—"
"We could not, sir. It was impossible. So we resolved to go to the north of London and to avoid Whitechapel at whatever cost."
"Whitechapel!" almost cried the Prophet.
"This determination it was, sir, that eventually led our steps to the borders of the River Mouse."
"You know it, sir?"
"But by repute, of course?"
"No doubt, no doubt," stammered the Prophet, who had in fact never before heard of this celebrated flood.
"That poor governess, sir, last August—you recollect?"
"Ah, indeed!" murmured the Prophet, a trifle incoherently.
"And then the mad undertaker in the autumn," continued Malkiel, with conscious pride; "he floated past our very door."
"Did he really?"
"Singing his swan song, no doubt, poor feller, as Madame said after she read about it in the paper. There were the grocer's twins as well, just lately. But they will be fresh in your memory."
Before the Prophet had time to state whether this was so or not Malkiel proceeded,—
"Well, sir, as soon as Madame and I had come to the Mouse we resolved that we could do no better than that. It was salubrious, it was retired, and it was N."
"But what is en?"
The Prophet had grown very red, but he was seized by the desperation that occasionally attacks ignorance, and renders it, for a moment, determinedly explicit.
"I ask you what does en mean? I am, I fear, a very ill-informed person, and I really don't know."
"Think of an envelope, sir," said Malkiel, with gentle commiseration. "Well, are you thinking?"
The Prophet grew purple.
"I am—but it is no use. Besides, why on earth should I think of an envelope? I beg you to explain."
"North, sir, the northern postal district of the metropolis. Fairly simple that—I think, sir."
"N.!" cried the illuminated Prophet. "I see. I was thinking of en all the time. I beg your pardon. Please go on. N.—of course!"
Malkiel concealed a smile, just sufficiently to make its existence for an instant vitally prominent, and continued,—
"By the Mouse we resolved to build a detached residence such as would influence suitably the minds of the children—should we have any. For we had resolved, sir, by that time that with me the Almanac should cease."
Here Malkiel leaned forward upon the deal table and lowered his voice to an impressive whisper.
"Yes, sir, it had come to that. We all have our ambitions and that was mine."
"Good Heavens!" said the Prophet. "Malkiel's Almanac cease! But why? Such a very useful institution!"
"Useful! More than that, sir, sublime! There's nothing like it."
"Then why let it cease?"
"Because the social status of the prophet, sir, is not agreeable to myself or Madame. I've had enough of it, sir, already, and I'm barely turned of fifty. Besides, my father would have wished it, I feel sure, had he lived in these days. Had he seen Sagittarius Lodge, the children, and how Madame comports herself, he would have recognised that the family was destined to rise into a higher sphere than that occupied by any prophet, however efficient. Besides, I will not deceive you, I have made money. In another ten years' time, when I have laid by sufficient, I tell you straight, sir, that I shall go out of prophecy, right out of it."
"Then your Capricor—that is your son—will not carry on the—"
"Capricornus a prophet, sir!" cried Malkiel. "Not if Madame and I know it. No, sir, Capricornus is to be an architect."
As Malkiel pronounced the last words he flung his black overcoat wide open with an ample gesture, thrust one hand into his breast, and assumed the fixed and far-seeing gaze of a man in a cabinet photograph. He seemed lost to his surroundings, and rapt by some great vision of enchanted architects, busy in drawing plans of the magic buildings of the future ages. The Prophet felt that it would be impious to disturb him. Malkiel's reverie was long, and indeed the two prophets might well have been sitting in Jellybrand's parlour now, had not a violent sneeze called for the pink assistance of the flight of storks, and brought the sneezer down to the level of ordinary humanity.
"Yes, sir—I give you my word Capricornus is to be an architect," repeated Malkiel. "What do you say to that?"
"Is it—is it really a better profession than that of prophecy?" asked the Prophet, rather nervously.
Malkiel smiled mournfully.
"Sir, it may not be more lucrative, but it is more select. Madame will not mix with prophets, but she has a 'day,' sir, on the banks of the Mouse, and she has gathered around her a very pleasant and select little circle."
"Yes, sir. Architects and their wives. You understand?"
"Quite," rejoined the Prophet, "quite."
Under the mesmeric influence of Malkiel he began to feel as if architects were some strange race of sacred beings set apart, denizens of some holy isle or blessed nook of mediaeval legend. Would he ever meet them? Would he ever encounter one ranging unfettered where flowed the waters of the River Mouse?
"They do not know who we are, sir," continued Malkiel, furtively. "To them and to the whole world—excepting Jellybrand's and you—we are the Sagittariuses of Sagittarius Lodge, people at ease, sir, living upon our competence beside the Mouse. They do not see the telescope, sir, in the locked studio at the top of the lodge. They do not know why sometimes, on Madame's 'Wednesdays,' I am pale—with sitting up on behalf of the Almanac. For Capricornus's sake and for Corona's all this is hid from the world. Madame and I are the victims of a double life. Yes, sir, for the children's sake we have never dared to let it be known what I really am."
Suddenly he began to grow excited.
"And now," he cried, "after all these years of secrecy, after all these years of avoiding the central districts—in which Madame longs to live—after all these years of seclusion beyond the beat even of the buses, do you come here to me, and search yourself and say upon your oath that a prophet can live and be a prophet in the Berkeley Square, that he can read the stars with Gunter's just opposite, ay, and bring out an almanac if he likes within a shilling fare of the Circus? If this is so"—he struck the deal table violently with his clenched fist—"of what use are the sacrifices of myself and Madame? Of what use is it to live under a modest name such as Sagittarius, when I might be Malkiel the Second to the whole world? Of what use to flee from W. and dwell perpetually in N.? Why, if what you say is true, we might leave the Mouse to-morrow and Madame could pop in and out of the Stores just like any lady of pleasure."
At the thought of this so long foregone enchantment Malkiel's emotion completely overcame him, his voice died away, overborne by a violent fit of choking, and he sat back in his cane chair trembling in every limb. The Prophet was deeply moved by his emotion, and longed most sincerely to assuage it. But his deep and growing conviction of his own power rendered him useless as a comforter. He could not lie. He could not deny that he was a prophet. He could only say, in his firmest voice,—
"Malkiel the Second, be brave. You must see this thing through."
On hearing these original and noble words Malkiel lifted up his marred countenance.
"I know it, sir, I know it," he answered. "One moment. The thought of Madame—the Stores—I—of all that might perhaps have been—"
He choked again. The Prophet looked away. A strong man's emotion is always very scared and very terrible. Three minutes swept by, then the Prophet heard a calm and hollow voice say,—
"And now, sir, to business."
The Prophet looked up, and perceived that Malkiel's overcoat was tightly buttoned and that his mouth was tightly set in an expression of indomitable, though tragic, resolution.
"What business?" asked the Prophet.
"Mine," replied Malkiel. "Mine, sir, and yours. You have chosen to enter my life. You cannot deny that. You cannot deny that I sought to avoid—I might even say to dodge you."
With the remembrance of the recent circus performance in the library still strong upon him the Prophet could not. He bowed his head.
"Very well, sir. You have chosen to enter my life. That act has given me the right to enter yours. Am I correct?"
"I suppose—I mean—yes, you are," answered the Prophet, overwhelmed by the pitiless logic of his companion, and wondering what was coming next.
"I have been forced—I think I may say that—to reveal myself to you, sir. Nothing can ever alter that. Nothing can ever take from you the knowledge—denied by Madame to the very architects—of who I really am. You have told me, sir, that I must see this thing through. I tell you now, at this table, in this parlour, that I intend to see it through—and through."
As Malkiel said the last words he gazed at the Prophet with eyes that seemed suddenly to have taken on the peculiar properties of the gimlet. The Prophet began to feel extremely uneasy. But he said nothing. He felt that there was more to come. And he was right.
"It is my duty," continued Malkiel, in a louder voice, "my sacred duty to Madame—to say nothing of Corona and Capricornus—to probe you to the core"—here the Prophet could not resist a startled movement of protest—"and to search you to the quick."
"Oh, really!" cried the Prophet.
"This duty I shall carry out unflinchingly," pursued Malkiel, "at whatever cost to myself. This will not be our last interview. Do not think it."
"I assure you," inserted the Prophet, endeavouring vainly to seem at ease, "I do not wish to think it."
"It matters little whether you wish to do so or not," continued Malkiel, with an increasingly Juggernaut air. "The son of Malkiel the First is not a man to be trifled with or dodged. Moreover, much more than the future of myself and family depends upon what you really are. From this day forth you will be bound up with the Almanac."
"Merciful Heavens!" ejaculated the Prophet, unable, intrepid as he was, to avoid recoiling when he found himself thus suddenly confronted with the fate of an appendix.
"For why should it ever cease?" proceeded Malkiel, with growing passion. "Why—if a prophet can live, as you declare, freely and openly in the Berkeley Square? If this is so, why should I not remove, along with Madame and family, from the borders of the Mouse and reside henceforth in a central situation such as I should wish to reside in? Why should not Capricornus eventually succeed me in the Almanac as I succeeded Malkiel the First? Already the boy shows the leanings of a prophet. Hitherto Madame and I have endeavoured to stifle them, to turn them in an architectural direction. You understand?"
"I am trying to," stammered the Prophet.
"Hitherto we have corrected the boy's table manners when they have become too like those of the average prophet—as they often have—for hitherto we have had reason to believe that all prophets—with the exception of myself—were dirty, deceitful and essentially suburban persons. But if you are a prophet we have been deceived. Trust me, sir, I shall find speedy means to pierce you to the very marrow."
The Prophet began mechanically to feel for his hat.
"Are you desirous of anything, sir?" said Malkiel, sharply.
"No," said the Prophet, wondering whether the moment had arrived to throw off all further pretence of bravery and to shout boldly for the assistance of the young librarian.
"Then why are you feeling about, sir? Why are you feeling about?"
"Was I?" faltered the Prophet.
"You are looking for another glass of wine, perhaps?"
"No, indeed," said the Prophet, desperately. "For anything but that."
But Malkiel, moved by some abruptly formed resolution, called suddenly in a powerful voice,—
"Here, Mr. Sagittarius!" cried the young librarian, appearing with suspicious celerity upon the parlour threshold.
"Draw the cork of the second bottle, Frederick Smith," said Malkiel, impressively. "This gentleman is about to take the pledge"—on hearing this ironic paradox the Prophet stood up, very much in the attitude formerly assumed by Malkiel when about to dodge in the library—"that I shall put to him," concluded Malkiel, also standing up, and assuming the library posture of the Prophet.
Indeed the situation of the library seemed about to be accurately reversed in the parlour of Jellybrand's.
The young librarian assisted the cork to emerge phlegmatically from the neck of the second bottle of champagne, mechanically smacking his lips the while.
"Now pour, and leave us, Frederick Smith."
The young librarian helped the fatigued-looking wine into the two glasses, where it lay as if thoroughly exhausted by the effort of getting there, and then languidly left the parlour, turning his bulging head over his shoulder to indulge in a pathetic oeillade ere he vanished.
The Prophet watched him go.
"Close the door, Frederick Smith," cried Malkiel, in a meaning manner.
The Prophet blushed a guilty red, and the young librarian obeyed with a bang.
"And now, sir, I must request you to take a solemn pledge in this vintage," said Malkiel, placing one of the tumblers in the Prophet's trembling hand.
"Really," said the Prophet, "I am not at all thirsty."
"Why should you be, sir? What has that got to do with it?" retorted Malkiel. "Lift your glass, sir."
The Prophet obeyed.
"And now take this pledge—that, till the last day—"
"The last day, sir, you will reveal to no living person that there is such an individual as Malkiel, that you have ever met him, who he is, or who Madame and family are, unless I give the word. You have surprised my secret. You have forced yourself upon me. You owe me this. Drink!"
Mechanically the Prophet drank.
Mechanically—indeed almost like a British working man—the Prophet swore.
Malkiel drained his tumbler, and drew on the dogskin glove which, in the agitation of a previous moment, he had thrown aside.
"I have your card, sir, here is mine. I shall now take the train to the River Mouse, on whose banks I shall confer at once with Madame. Till I have done this I cannot tell you what form the tests I shall have to apply to you will take. When I have done it you will hear from me. Your servant, sir."