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   Chapter 5 MALKIEL THE SECOND POISONS MISS MINERVA

The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 10647

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


"Miss Minerva!" exclaimed Malkiel the Second.

"Lady Enid!" cried the Prophet, at the same moment.

"You can't go in there, Miss Partridge!" ejaculated the young librarian, simultaneously, from the further room.

The lady, a tall girl of twenty-two, with grey eyes, dark smooth hair, and a very agreeable, though slightly Scottish, mouth, began to behave rather like a stag at bay. She panted, and looked wildly round as if meditating how, and in what direction, she could best bolt.

"What's the matter?" cried the Prophet, his voice becoming not a little piercing from surprise and his previous stress of agitation.

"You can't go in there, Miss Minerva," requested the young librarian, who had now gained the parlour threshold, and who seemed about to take up a very determined stand thereon.

"I must go in-I must," said the lady, in a mellow, but again slightly Scottish, voice. "Don't tell anybody I'm here, or you'll be sorry."

And, with these words, she bounded into the parlour and banged the door on the young librarian. The Prophet opened his lips preparatory to a third wild exclamation.

"Hush!" the lady hissed aristocratically.

She shook her head vigourously at him, sank down on one of the cane chairs, held up her right hand, and leant towards the door. It was obvious that she was listening for something with strained attention, and so eloquent was her attitude that the two prophets were infected with her desire. They turned their eyes mechanically towards the deal door and listened too. For a moment there was silence. Then a heavy footstep resounded upon the library floor, accompanied by the sharp tap of a walking stick. The lady's attitude became more tense and the pupils of her handsome grey eyes dilated.

"Has a young female just entered this shop?" said a very heavy and rumbling voice.

"This ain't a shop, sir," replied the high soprano of the young librarian, indignantly.

"Bandy no words with me, thou infamous malapert!" returned the first voice. "But answer my question. Have you a young female concealed within these loathsome precincts?"

Under ordinary circumstances it is very possible that the young librarian might have betrayed the lady as he had already betrayed Malkiel the Second. But it happened that there existed upon the earth one object, and one object only, towards which he felt a sense of chivalry. This object was Jellybrand's Library. His reply to the voice was therefore as follows, and was delivered in his highest key and with extreme volubility and passion:-

"Loathsome precincts yourself! You're a nice one, you are, chasing respectable ladies about at your age. There ain't no young females in the library, and if there was I shouldn't trot 'em out for you to clap your ugly old eyes on. Now then, out yer go. No more words about it. Out yer go!"

A prolonged sound of hard breathing and of feet scraping violently upon bare boards followed upon this deliverance, complicated by the sharp snap of a breaking walking stick, the thump of a falling chair, a bang as of a heavy body encountering firm resistance from some inflexible article of furniture-probably a bookcase-and finally a tremendous thundering, as of the hoofs of a squadron of cavalry charging over a parquet floor, the crash of a door, the grinding of a key swiftly turning in a lock, and-silence.

The lady, Malkiel the Second and the Prophet looked at one another, and the lady opened her mouth.

"D'you think he's killed him?" she whispered with considerable curiosity.

There came a distant noise of a torrent of knocks upon a door.

"No, he hasn't," added the lady, arranging her dress. "That's a good thing."

The two prophets nodded. The torrent of knocks roared louder, slightly failed upon the ear, made a crescendo, emulated Niagara, surpassed that very American effort of nature, wavered, faltered to Lodore, died away to a feeble tittup like water dropping from a tap to flagstones, rose again in a final spurt that would have made Southey open his dictionary for adjectives, and drained away to death.

The lady leaned back. For the first time her composure seemed about to desert her entirely. That fatal sign in woman, a working throat, swallowing nothing with extreme rapidity and persistence, became apparent.

"A glass of wine, Miss Minerva?" cried Malkiel, gallantly.

He placed a tumbler to her lips. She feebly sipped, than sprang to her feet with a cry.

"I'm poisoned!"

"You never spoke a truer word," said the Prophet, solemnly.

"What is it?" continued the lady, frantically. "What has he given me?"

"Champagne at four shillings a bottle brought fresh from next door to a rabbit shop," answered the Prophet, looking at Malkiel with almost malignant satisfaction.

The lady, who had gone white as chalk, darted to the door and flung it open.

"A glass of water!" she cried. "Get me a glass of water."

The young librarian came forward with a black eye.

"It's all right, ma'am. The gentleman's gone," he piped.

"What gentleman? Give me a glass of water or I shall die!"

The young librarian, who had already an injured air, proceeded from a positive to a comparative condition of appearance.

"Well, I never! What gentleman!" he exclaimed. "And me blue and black all over, to say nothing of the bo

okcase and the new paint that'll be wanted for the door!"

"Can you chatter about trifles at such a moment?" cried the Prophet. "Don't you see the lady's been poisoned?"

"What-by the old gent?" returned the young librarian. "Then what does she come to a library for? Why don't she go to a chemist?"

The lady turned her agonised eyes upon the Prophet.

"Take me to one," she whispered through pale lips.

She tottered towards him and leaned upon his arm.

"Trust me, trust me, I will," said the Prophet. "Direct me!" he added to the young librarian.

"There's one on the other side of the rabbit shop," said that worthy, who had suddenly become exceedingly glum in manner and morose in appearance.

"Thank you. Kindly unlock the door."

The young librarian did so, lethargically, and the lady and the Prophet began to move slowly into the street. Just as they were gaining it Malkiel the Second cried out,-

"One moment, sir!"

"Not one," retorted the Prophet, firmly. "Not one till this lady has had an antidote."

He walked on with determination. Supporting the lady. But ere he got quite out of earshot he caught these fragments of a shattered speech, hurtling through the symphony of London noises:-

"Banks of the Mouse-Madame-sake of Capricor-be sure I-probe-quick-search-the very core-hear from me-architects-marrow-almanac-the last day-the Berkeley square-"

The final ejaculation melted away into the somewhat powerful discord produced by the impact of a brewer's dray with a runaway omnibus at the corner of Greek Street, which was eventually resolved by the bursting of a motor car-containing two bookmakers and an acting manager-which mingled with them at the rate of perhaps forty miles an hour.

"Yes, please, a hansom," said Lady Enid Thistle, some five minutes later, as she and the Prophet stood together upon the kerb in front of the rabbit shop. "I feel much better now."

The Prophet hailed a hansom and handed her into it.

"Which way are you going?" he asked.

Lady Enid looked doubtful.

"I ought to be going back to Jellybrand's," she said. "I had an appointment. But really-you see Mr. Sagittarius is there, and altogether-I don't know."

She was obviously still upset by the "creaming foam," and the other incidents of the afternoon.

"Come to tea with grannie," said the Prophet.

"She's at home?"

"Yes. She's twisted her ankle."

"Oh, I'm so sorry."

"Let me escort you."

"Thanks. I think I will."

"You won't mind stopping for a moment at Hollings's?" said the Prophet, in Piccadilly Circus. "I promised to buy some roses. Somebody is coming in to tea."

"On, no. But who is it?"

"I don't know. Only one person, I think. An old friend, no doubt. Probably the Central American Ambassador's grandfather."

"Oh, if that's all! I feel a little shaky still."

"Naturally."

The Prophet bought the roses and they drove on.

"It's very nice of you not to ask any questions," observed Lady Enid, presently.

The Prophet had been thinking it was, but he only said,-

"Oh, not at all."

"I'm a woman," promised Lady Enid, "and I don't know whether I can be so nice."

The Prophet glanced at her and met her curious grey eyes.

"Try-please," he replied very gently, thinking of the oath which he had just taken.

Lady Enid was silent for two minutes, then she remarked,-

"I have tried, but I can't succeed. Why on earth were you closeted in the parlour-at my time, too-with Mr. Sagittarius this afternoon?"

"Then you really are Miss Minerva Partridge? And it was really you who had-had-well, 'bespoke' the parlour at half-past three?"

"Certainly. Now we are neither of us nice, but we're both of us human."

"There were some letters for you," said the Prophet.

Lady Enid wrinkled her smooth, young, healthy-looking forehead.

"How stupid of me! I'll fetch them to-morrow. Well?"

She looked at the Prophet with obvious expectation.

"I'm so sorry I can't tell you," he replied with gentle firmness.

"Oh, all right," she rejoined. "But now I'm at a disadvantage. You know I'm Miss Minerva."

"Yes. But I don't know why you are, or why you go to Jellybrand's, or why you rushed into the parlour, or who the old gentleman was that-"

The cab stopped before Mrs. Merillia's house.

In the hall, upon an oaken bench, they perceived a very broad-brimmed top hat standing on its head. Beside it lay two pieces of a stout and knobbly walking stick which had been broken in half. Lady Enid started violently.

"Good Heavens!" she cried.

She picked up the walking stick, examined it, and laid it down.

"I don't think I want any tea," she murmured.

"I'm sure you do," said the Prophet, with some pressure.

She stood still for a moment. Then, catching the attentive round eye of Gustavus, who was waiting by the hall door, she shrugged her shoulders and walked towards the staircase.

"It's very hard lines," she murmured as she began to ascend: "all the questions you wanted to ask are being answered. You know I'm Miss Minerva already. In another minute you'll know who the old gentleman was that-"

The Prophet could tell from the expression of her straight, slightly Scottish, back that she was pouting as she entered the drawing-room where Mrs. Merillia was having tea with-somebody.

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