The prophet by Henry Lion Oldie (read online)

Henry Lion Oldie. The prophet

“Arise, oh prophet, hark and see, Perform that will o’mine! And wandering through lands and seas Burn hearts by verbal fire.” A. S. Pushkin Antisthenes took the test-tube and examined the fluid against the

light. The elixir was dark-golden, thick, resembling old Tokay. Was this
the one or not? Hope, Antishpenus’ eternal companion, cried yes, it was!
But scepticism — the invariable burden of a scientist — demanded a
trial. Antishpenus came up to the old table, corroded by acids and
charred in some places, took a flask with reagent. At that very moment
came a demanding knock on the door. He knew that would happen, sooner or
later, but… oh no, not now! Too much pain. The knock was getting more
and more persistent.
Antisthenes came to with a startle. The door would stand no longer
than two minutes. He should act. Feverishly he grabbed a pile of tattered
papers with formulae, figures and designs, and tossed them into the
fireplace. Then the papers from the drawer went flying into the fire.
What else? The apparatus! Antisthenes grasped the poker and, his eyes
closed, swung and struck the entanglement of coil pipes, filters, boiling
retorts, and copper wires. Something hissed letting out clouds of smoke.
The upper lock on the door went off, the bar hardly holding on.
Antisthenes struck once more, then again… It seemed to him he was
breaking his own ribs. Well, that was all. Perhaps, he still had time to
escape? Antisthenes darted for the window when his look fell on the test-
tube he was still squeezing in his hand. The elixir? Or poison?.. Didn’t
matter now — and in a gulp he drained the tube. The liquid had an acrid
taste with some elusive flavour, breathtaking, giving pressure to his
temples.
For a second he stood listening to what was going on inside him.
Whatever the test-tube had contained would not take effect instantly.
Antishpenus tossed the tube into fire. The next second the hinges gave in
and the door collapsed smashing the remains of the apparatus. Guardsmen
broke into the room. It was too late to run. He didn’t notice the coming
blow and the room growing dark swam before his eyes…

The Dictator, rosy-cheeked and clean-shaven, sitting at the bulky

oak table of antique artwork, was smiling. In the whole huge hall, with
columns and a vaulted ceiling with stucco ornaments, there was nothing
except that table. Upon it there was a telephone and a shabby office
folder. Antisthenes kept silent looking in the face so familiar by
newspaper clips and TV shows. The bruised lip hurt, his tongue was
involuntarily feeling the hole in the place of a knocked-out tooth, but
in general he got off quite lightly.
The Dictator kept silence, which was playing into his hands —
that’s why Antisthenes spoke first.
— What do you want from me?
The Dictator kept silence.
— By what right, after all?..
The Dictator kept silence.
— What do you want from me?! — Antisthenes burst out shouting.
— The elixir, — the Dictator uttered very quietly, his lips hardly
moving, but Antisthenes would have understood even if he hadn’t spoken at
all.
— I do not understand you.
— Don’t try to pull my leg. I’m not an expert, and I don’t know the
exact properties of your elixir — whether it prolongs life or returns
youth or renders one immortal… You’ll supply the details later on. As
well as the technology. Just now I need a dose. One dose in exchange for
your life. Plus a lot of money. Do you get me? Very big money. Really
big.
Antisthenes remained silent.
— Well then. — Crustill!
Heels clicked together behind Antisthenes’ back.
— At your command, your excellency.
— This man must say “yes”. Take him away.

Unable to walk by himself, Antisthenes had to be carried by the arms

and legs. There the guards stood him leaning against the wall.
Antisthenes staggered, but managed to steady huimself. The square was
reeling before his eyes. The officer began reading out the sentence.
Antisthenes had known the sentence. Short and clear as a burst of tommy-
gun fire. The people who had been driven into a huge crowd in the square,
kept a sullen silence. Antisthenes was considered to be a crank, a man
slightly touched in the head, a kind of God’s fool doing no harm to
anyone. And that’s why they were silent — it was a usual form of
protest.
By the end of the sentence reading the town-hall clock began
striking noon, their chime drowning the words. Words, words, words… Who
said that? Don’t remember. Four soldiers lined up facing him. Tommy-gun
locks went clicking. The gold-laced officer raised his hand. Antisthenes
could clearly see the black muzzles of the gun barrels. Now… Torn
flames blew up at him. And then there came silence.
— Are you damned blind?! — shouted the officer. — Can’t you hit a
man at thirty steps? — he waved again. Tommy-guns opened fire. Bullets
were chipping chunks of brick off the wall, but Antisthenes was still
standing there.
The officer swore, snatched a gun from a soldier’s hands and aimed
it carefully. At that very moment Antisthenes realized. People saw his
battered parched lips stretch in a smile, then they saw the sentenced man
detach himself from the wall and walk towards the soldiers. In a sudden
convulsive movement the officer pulled the trigger, but the fire once
again made a bend around the beaten man and stinged the wall crumbling
its plaster. In the crowd, a few women went hysterical. And then the
soldiers started running. Tough young guys — but never before did they
have to shoot prophets…
Antisthenes quickened his pace. He didn’t know how long the elixir
would work, and he had to make it to the palace. And following him moved
the continually growing crowd, on their way picking up the guns thrown by
guardsmen…

x x x

…Antisthenes put a full stop, brushed the manuscript aside to the

table edge and, satisfied, leaned back in his armchair. And at that very
moment came a demanding knock on the door. He knew that would happen,
sooner or later, but… oh no, not now! Too much pain. Now hardly anyone
would be able to read that book. The door collapsed and the guardsmen
broke into the room.

The Dictator, rosy-cheeked and clean-shaven, sitting at the bulky

oak table of antique artwork, was smiling. In the whole huge hall, with
columns and a vaulted ceiling with stucco ornaments, there was nothing
except that table.
— Won’t tire you with silence like in your book, — he continued
smiling. — Let’s leave elixirs to alchemy. I want a renunciation. A
well-staged one, public, with representatives of the press. Don’t promise
you any reward. But you’ll live.
Antisthenes kept silent.
— You know, I’ve read your… opuses. You write well. But it’s no
good to follow the plot so closely. For as far as I remember, the next
scene you’ve got is torture. And shooting.
Antisthenes kept silent.
— All right then, let’s not restrict the author’s imagination. No
elixirs, though. And we will not suspend the sentence ’till tomorrow. —
Crustill!
Heels clicked together behind Antisthenes’ back.

Unable to walk by himself, Antisthenes had to be carried by the arms

and legs. Then the guards stood him leaning against the wall. Antisthenes
staggered, but managed to steady himself. The square was reeling before
his eyes. He had known the sentence — short and clear as a burst of
tommy-gun fire. By the end of the sentence reading the town-hall clock
began striking noon, their chime drowning the words. Words, words,
words… Who said that? Hamlet. Four soldiers lined up facing him. Tommy-
gun locks went clicking. The gold-laced officer raised his hand. Now…
Torn flames blew up at him. But Antisthenes was still standing there
watching in dumb amazement the bullets chipping pieces of plaster off the
wall around him.

THE END

(c) Henry Lion Oldie, 1991. (c) Translation from Russian, 1997-1998, Mikhail Zislis, Irina

Kapitannikova.

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