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Mr. Percy and the Prophet

Wilkie Collins

  Mr Percy and the Prophet

  By Wilkie Collins

  © 2007 by

  Part One


  The disasters that follow the hateful offence against Christianity, which men call war, were severely felt in England during the peace that ensued on the overthrow of Napoleon at Waterloo. With rare exceptions, distress prevailed among all classes of the community.

  The starving nation was ripe and ready for a revolutionary rising against its rulers, who had shed the people’s blood and wasted the people’s substance in a war which had yielded to the popular interests absolutely nothing in return.

  Among the unfortunate persons who were driven, during the disastrous early years of this century, to strange shifts and devices to obtain the means of living, was a certain obscure medical man, of French extraction, named Lagarde. The Doctor (duly qualified to bear the title) was an inhabitant of London; living in one of the narrow streets which connect the great thoroughfare of the Strand with the bank of the Thames.

  The method of obtaining employment chosen by poor Lagarde, as the one alternative left in the face of starvation, was, and is still considered by the medical profession to be, the method of a quack. He advertised in the public journals.

  Addressing himself especially to two classes of the community, the Doctor proceeded in these words:

  ‘I have the honour of inviting to my house, in the first place: Persons afflicted with maladies which ordinary medical practice has failed to cure—and, in the second place: Persons interested in investigations, the object of which is to penetrate the secrets of the future. Of the means by which I endeavour to alleviate suffering and to enlighten doubt, it is impossible to speak intelligibly within the limits of an advertisement. I can only offer to submit my system to public inquiry, without exacting any preliminary fee from ladies and gentlemen who may honour me with a visit. Those who see sufficient reason to trust me, after personal experience, will find a money-box fixed on the waiting-room table, into which they can drop their offerings according to their means. Those whom I am not fortunate enough to satisfy will be pleased to accept the expression of my regret, and will not be expected to give anything. I shall be found at home every evening between the hours of six and ten.’

  Towards the close of the year 1816, this strange advertisement became a general topic of conversation among educated people in London. For some weeks, the Doctor’s invitations were generally accepted—and, all things considered, were mit badly remunerated. A faithful few believed in him, and told wonderful stories of what he had pronounced and prophesied in the sanctuary of his consulting-room. The majority of his visitors simply viewed him in the light of a public amusement, and wondered why such a gentlemanlike man should have chosen to gain his living by exhibiting himself as a quack.


  On a raw and snowy evening towards the latter part of January, 1817, a gentleman, walking along the Strand, turned into the street in which Doctor Lagarde lived, and knocked at the physician’s door.

  He was admitted by an elderly male servant to a waiting-room on the first floor. The light of one little lamp, placed on a bracket fixed to the wall, was so obscured by a dark green shade as to make it difficult, if not impossible, for visitors meeting by accident to recognise each other. The metal money-box fixed to the table was just visible. In the flickering light of a small fire, the stranger perceived the figures of three men seated, apart and silent, who were the only occupants of the room beside himself.

  So far as objects were to be seen, there was nothing to attract attention in the waiting-room. The furniture was plain and neat, and nothing more. The elderly servant handed a card, with a number inscribed on it, to the new visitor, said in a whisper, ‘Your number will be called, sir, in your turn,’ and disappeared. For some minutes nothing disturbed the deep silence but the faint ticking of a clock. After a while a bell rang from an inner room, a door opened, and a gentleman appeared, whose interview with Doctor Lagarde had terminated. His opinion of the sitting was openly expressed in one emphatic word—

  ‘Humbug!’ No contribution dropped from his hand as he passed the money-box on his way out.

  The next number (being Number Fifteen) was called by the elderly servant, and the first incident occurred in the strange series of events destined to happen in the Doctor’s house that night.

  One after another the three men who had been waiting rose, examined their cards under the light of the lamp, and sat down again surprised and disappointed.

  The servant advanced to investigate the matter. The numbers possessed by the three visitors, instead of being Fifteen, Sixteen, and Seventeen, proved to be Sixteen, Seventeen, and Eighteen. Turning to the stranger who had arrived the last, the servant said:

  ‘Have I made a mistake, sir? Have I given you Number Fifteen instead of Number Eighteen?’

  The gentleman produced his numbered card.

  A mistake had certainly been made, but not the mistake that the servant supposed. The card held by the latest visitor turned out to be the card previously held by the dissatisfied stranger who had just left the room—Number Fourteen! As to the card numbered Fifteen, it was only discovered the next morning lying in a corner, dropped on the floor!

  Acting on his first impulse, the servant hurried out, calling to the original holder of Fourteen to come back and bear his testimony to that fact. The Street-door had been opened for him by the landlady of the house. She was a pretty woman—and the gentleman had fortunately lingered to talk to her. He was induced, at the intercession of the landlady, to ascend the stairs again.

  On returning to the waiting-room, he addressed a characteristic question to the assembled visitors. ‘More humbug?’ asked the gentleman who liked to talk to a pretty woman.

  The servant—completely puzzled by his own stupidity—attempted to make his apologies.

  ‘Pray forgive me, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘I am afraid I have confused the cards I distribute with the cards returned to me. I think I had better consult my master.’

  Left by themselves, the visitors began to speak jestingly of the strange situation in which they were placed. The original holder of Number Fourteen described his experience of the Doctor in his own pithy way. ‘I applied to the fellow to tell my fortune.

  He first went to sleep over it, and then he said he could tell me nothing. I asked why. “I don’t know,” says he. “I do,” says I—‘ “humbug!” I’ll bet you the long odds, gentlemen, that you find it humbug, too.

  Before the wager could be accepted or declined, the door of the inner room was opened again. The tall, spare, black figure of a new personage appeared on the threshold, relieved darkly against the light in the room behind him. He addressed the visitors in these words:

  ‘Gentlemen, I must beg your indulgence. The accident—as we now suppose it to be—

  which has given to the last corner the number already held by a gentleman who has unsuccessfully consulted me, may have a meaning which we can none of us at present see. If the three visitors who have been so good as to wait, will allow the present holder of Number Fourteen to consult me out of his turn—and if the earlier visitor who left me dissatisfied with his consultation will consent to stay here a little longer—something may happen which will justify a trifling sacrifice of your own convenience. Is ten minutes’

  patience too much to ask of you?’

  The three visitors who had waited longest consulted among themselves, and (having nothing better to do with their time) decided on accepting the doctor’s proposal. The visitor who believed it all to be ‘humbug’ coolly took a gold coin out of his pocket, tossed it into the air, caught it in his closed hand, and wal
ked up to the shaded lamp on the bracket.

  ‘Heads, stay,’ he said, ‘Tails, go.’ He opened his hand, and looked at the coin. ‘Heads!

  Very good. Go on with your hocus-pocus, Doctor—I’ll wait.’

  ‘You believe in chance,’ said the Doctor, quietly observing him. ‘That is not my experience of life.’

  He paused to let the stranger who now held Number Fourteen pass him into the inner room—then followed, closing the door behind him.


  The consulting-room was better lit than the waiting-room, and that was the only difference between the two. In the one as in the other, no attempt was made to impress the imagination. Everywhere, the commonplace furniture of a London lodging-house was left without the slightest effort to alter or improve it by changes of any kind.

  Seen under the clearer light, Doctor Lagarde appeared to be the last person living who would consent to degrade himself by an attempt at imposture of any kind. His eyes were the dreamy eyes of a visionary; his look was the prematurely-aged look of a student, accustomed to give the hours to his book which ought to have been given to his bed. To state it briefly, he was a man who might easily be deceived by others, but who was incapable of consciously practising deception himself.

  Signing to his visitor to be seated, he took a chair on the opposite side of the small table that stood between them—waited a moment with his face hidden in his hands, as if to collect himself—and then spoke.

  ‘Do you come to consult me on a case of illness?’ he inquired, ‘or do you ask me to look into the darkness which hides your future life?’

  The answer to those questions was frankly and briefly expressed: ‘I have no need to consult you about my health. I come to hear what you can tell me of my future life.’

  ‘I can try,’ pursued the Doctor; ‘but I cannot promise to succeed.’

  ‘I accept your conditions,’ the stranger rejoined. ‘I neither believe nor disbelieve. If you will excuse my speaking frankly, I mean to observe you closely, and to decide for myself.’

  Doctor Lagarde smiled sadly.

  ‘You have heard of me as a charlatan who contrives to amuse a few idle people.’ he said. ‘I don’t complain of that; my present position leads necessarily to misinterpretation of myself and my motives. Still, I may at least say that I am the victim of a sincere avowal of my belief in a great science. Yes! I repeat it, a great science! New, I dare say, to the generation we live in, though it was known and practised in the days when the pyramids were built. The age is advancing; and the truths which it is my misfortune to advocate, before the time is ripe for them, are steadily forcing their way to recognition. I am resigned to wait. My sincerity in this matter has cost me the income that I derived from my medical practice. Patients distrust me; doctors refuse to consult with me. I could starve if I had no one to think of but myself. But I have another person to consider, who is very dear to me; and I am driven, literally driven, either to turn beggar in the streets, or to do what I am doing now.’

  He paused, and looked round towards the corner of the room behind him. ‘Mother,’ he said gently, ‘are you ready?’

  An elderly lady, dressed in deep mourning, rose from her seat in the corner. She had been, thus far, hidden from notice by the high back of the easy-chair in which her son sat.

  Excepting some folds of fine black lace, laid over her white hair so as to form a head-dress at once simple and picturesque, there was nothing remarkable in her attire. The visitor rose and bowed. She gravely returned his salute, and moved so as to place herself opposite to her son.

  ‘May I ask what this lady is going to do?’ said the stranger.

  ‘To be of any use to you,’ answered Doctor Lagarde, ‘I must be thrown into the magnetic trance. The person who has the strongest influence over me is the person who will do it to-night.’

  He turned to his mother. ‘When you like,’ he said.

  Bending over him, she took both the Doctor’s hands, and looked steadily into his eyes.

  No words passed between them; nothing more took place. In a minute or two, his head was resting against the back of the chair, and his eyelids had closed.

  ‘Are you sleeping?’ asked Madame Lagarde.

  ‘I am sleeping,’ he answered.

  She laid his hands gently on the arms of the chair, and turned to address the visitor.

  ‘Let the sleep gain on him for a minute or two more,’ she said. ‘Then take one of his hands, and put to him what questions you please.’

  ‘Does he hear us now, madam?’

  ‘You might fire off a pistol, sir, close to his ear, and he would not hear it. The vibration might disturb him; that is all. Until you or I touch him, and so establish the nervous sympathy, he is as lost to all sense of our presence here, as if he were dead.’

  ‘Are you speaking of the thing called Animal Magnetism, madam?’



  ‘And you believe in it, of course?’

  ‘My son’s belief, sir, is my belief in this thing as in other things. I have heard what he has been saying to you. It is for me that he sacrifices himself by holding these exhibitions; it is in my poor interests that his hardly-earned money is made. I am in infirm health; and remonstrate as I may, my son persists in providing for me, not the bare comforts only, but even the luxuries of life. Whatever I may suffer, I have my compensation; I can still thank God for giving me the greatest happiness that a woman can enjoy, the possession of a good son.

  She smiled fondly as she looked at the sleeping man. ‘Draw your chair nearer to him,’

  she resumed, ‘and take his hand. You may speak freely in making your inquiries. Nothing that happens in this room goes out of it.’

  With those words she returned to her place, in the corner behind her son’s chair.

  The visitor took Doctor Lagarde’s hand. As they touched each other, he was conscious of a faintly-titillating sensation in his own hand—a sensation which oddly reminded him of bygone experiments with an electrical machine, in the days when he was a boy at school!

  ‘I wish to question you about my future life,’ he began. ‘How ought I to begin?’

  The Doctor spoke his first words in the monotonous tones of a man talking in his sleep.

  ‘Own your true motive before you begin,’ he said. ‘Your interest in your future life is centred in a woman. You wish to know if her heart will be yours in the time that is to come—and there your interest in your future life ends.’

  This startling proof of the sleeper’s capacity to look, by sympathy, into his mind, and to see there his most secret thoughts, instead of convincing the stranger, excited his suspicions. ‘You have means of getting information,’ he said, ‘that I don’t understand.’

  The Doctor smiled, as if the idea amused him. Madame Lagarde rose from her place, and interposed.

  ‘Hundreds of strangers come here to consult my son,’ she said quietly. ‘If you believe that we know who those strangers are, and that we have the means of inquiring into their private lives before they enter this room, you believe in something much more incredible than the magnetic sleep!’

  This was too manifestly true to be disputed. The visitor made his apologies.

  ‘I should like to have some explanation,’ he added. ‘The thing is so very extraordinary.

  How can I prevail upon Doctor Lagarde to enlighten me?’

  ‘He can only tell you what he sees,’ Madame Lagarde answered; ‘ask him that, and you will get a direct reply. Say to him: “Do you see the lady?”’

  The stranger repeated the question. The reply followed at once, in these words:

  ‘I see two figures standing side by side. One of them is your figure. The other is the figure of a lady. She only appears dimly. I can discover nothing but that she is taller than women generally are, and that she is dressed in pale blue.’ The man to whom he was speaking started at those last words. ‘Her favourite colour!’ he thought to himself—
  forgetting that, while he held the Doctor’s hand, the Doctor could think with his mind.

  ‘Yes,’ added the sleeper quietly, ‘her favourite colour, as you know. She fades and fades as I look at her,’ he went on. ‘She is gone. I only see you, under a new aspect. You have a pistol in your hand. Opposite to you, there stands the figure of another man. He,

  too, has a pistol in his hand. Are you enemies? Are you meeting to fight a duel? Is the lady the cause? I try, but I fail to see her.’

  ‘Can you describe the man?’

  ‘Not yet. So far, he is only a shadow in the form of a man.’

  There was another interval. An appearance of disturbance showed itself on the sleeper’s face. Suddenly, he waved his free hand in the direction of the waiting-room.

  ‘Send for the visitors who are there,’ he said. ‘They are all to come in. Each one of them is to take one of my hands in turn—while you remain where you are, holding the other hand. Don’t let go of me, even for a moment. My mother will ring.’

  Madame Lagarde touched a bell on the table. The servant received his orders from her and retired. After a short absence, he appeared again in the consulting-room, with one visitor only waiting on the threshold behind him.


  ‘The other three gentlemen have gone away, madam,’ the servant explained, addressing Madame Lagarde. ‘They were tired of waiting. I found this gentleman fast asleep; and I am afraid he is angry with me for taking the liberty of waking him.’

  ‘Sleep of the common sort is evidently not allowed in this house.’ With that remark the gentleman entered the room, and stood revealed as the original owner of the card numbered Fourteen.

  Viewed by the clear lamplight, he was a tall, finely-made man, in the prime of life, with a florid complexion, golden-brown hair, and sparkling blue eyes. Noticing Madame Lagarde, he instantly checked the flow of his satire, with

  the instinctive good-breeding of a gentleman. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said; ‘I have a great many faults, and a habit of making bad jokes is one of them. Is the servant right, madam, in telling me that I have the honour of presenting myself here at your request?’