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   Chapter 12 THE ELABORATE MIND OF MISS MINERVA

The Prophet of Berkeley Square By Robert Hichens Characters: 12503

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


On being shown, by an elderly housekeeper with a Berlin wool fringe, into an old-fashioned oval book-room, Lady Enid and the Prophet discovered the astronomer sitting there tete-a-tete with a muffin, which lay on a china plate surrounded by manuscripts, letters, pamphlets, books and blotting-paper. He was engaged in tracing lines upon an immense sheet of foolscap with the aid of a ruler and a pair of compasses, and when he perceived his visitors, he merely rolled his glassy eyes at them, shook his large head as if in rebuke, and then returned to his occupation without uttering a word.

Lady Enid was in nowise abashed. She looked more sensible even than usual, and at once commenced her campaign by the remark,-

"I know you wonder why I wanted to see you this afternoon, Sir Tiglath. Well, I'll tell you at once. Mr. Vivian has persuaded me to act as his ambassador."

At this very unexpected statement the Prophet started, and was about to utter what might, perhaps, have taken the form of a carefully-worded denial, when Lady Enid made a violent face at him, and proceeded, in a calm manner.

"He wishes you to do something for him, and he has confessed to me that he does not quite like to ask you himself."

On hearing these words the Prophet's brain, already sorely tried by the tragic duel which had taken place between himself and the couple who lived beside the Mouse, temporarily collapsed. He attempted no protest. His mind indeed was not in a condition to invent one. He simply sat down on a small pile of astronomical instruments which, with some scientific works, an encyclopaedia and a pair of carpet slippers, occupied the nearest chair, and waited in a dazed manner for what would happen next.

Sir Tiglath continued measuring and drawing lines with a very thin pen, and Lady Enid proceeded further to develop her campaign.

"Mr. Vivian tells me," she said, "that he has a very old and dear friend who is most anxious to make your acquaintance-not, of course, for any idle social purpose, but in order to consult you on some obscure point connected with astronomy that only you can render clear. Isn't this so, Mr. Vivian?"

The Prophet shifted uneasily on the astronomical instruments, and, grasping the carpet slippers with one hand to steady himself, in answer to an authoritative sign from Lady Enid, feebly nodded his head.

"But," Lady Enid continued, apparently warming to her lies, "Mr. Vivian and his friend, knowing how much your time is taken up by astronomical research and how intensely valuable it is to the world at large, have not hitherto dared to intrude upon it, although they have wished to do so for a very long time, and have even made one attempt-at the Colley Cibber Club."

The Prophet gasped. Sir Tiglath took a bit out of the muffin and returned to his tracing and measuring.

"On that occasion you may remember," Lady Enid went on with increasing vivacity and assurance, "you declined to speak. This naturally damped Mr. Vivian-who is very sensitive, though you might not think it"-here she cast a glance at the instruments on which the Prophet sat-"and his friend. So much so, in fact, that unless I had undertaken to act for them I daresay they would have let the matter drop. Wouldn't you, Mr. Vivian?" she added swiftly to the Prophet.

"Certainly," he answered, like a creature in a dream. "Certainly."

"More especially as the friend, Mrs. Vane Bridgeman"-the Prophet at this point made an inarticulate, but very audible, noise that might have meant anything, and that did in fact mean "Merciful Heavens! what will become of me?"-"Mrs. Vane Bridgeman is also of a very retiring disposition and would hate to put such a man as you are to the slightest inconvenience."

Sir Tiglath took another bite at the muffin, which seemed to be getting the worst of the tete-a-tete, rummaged among the mess of things that loaded his table till he found a gigantic book, opened it, and began to compare some measurements in it with those he had made on the foolscap paper. His brick-red face glistened in the light of the lamp that stood beside him. His moist red lips shone, and he seemed totally unaware that there was anyone in the chamber endeavouring to gain his attention.

"In these circumstances, Sir Tiglath," Lady Enid went on, with pleasant ease, and a sort of homespun self-possession that trumpeted, like a military band, her sensibleness, "Mr. Vivian consulted me as to what to do; whether to give the whole thing up, or to make an appeal to you at the risk of disturbing you and taking up a little of your precious time. When he had explained the affair to me, however, I at once felt certain that you would wish to know of it. Didn't I, Mr. Vivian? Didn't I say, only this afternoon, that we must at once take a four-wheeler to Sir Tiglath's?"

"Yes, you did," said the Prophet, in a muffled voice.

"For I knew that no investigation, no serious, reverent investigation into heavenly, that is starry, conditions could be indifferent to you, Sir Tiglath."

The astronomer, who had been in the act of lifting the last morsel of the muffin to his mouth, put it down again, and Lady Enid, thus vehemently encouraged, went on more rapidly.

"You know of Mr. Vivian's interest, almost more than interest, in the planets. This interest is shared, was indeed prompted by Mrs. Bridgeman, a woman of serious attainments and a cultivated mind. Isn't she, Mr. Vivian?"

The Prophet heard a voice reply, "Oh, yes, she is." He often wondered afterwards whether it was his own.

"It seems that she, during certain researches, hit upon an idea with regard to-well, shall I say with regard to certain stars?-which she communicated to Mr. Vivian in the hope that he would carry it further, and in fact clear it up. Didn't she, Mr. Vivian?"

"Oh, yes, she did," said a voice, to which the Prophet again listened with strained attention.

"It was in connection with this idea that Mr. Vivian developed his enthusiasm for the telescope-which led him, perhaps, a little too far, Sir Tiglath, but I'm sure Mrs. Merillia and you have quite forgotten that!"

Here Lady Enid paused, and the astronomer achieved the final conquest of the muffin.

"He and Mrs. Bridgeman

have been, in fact, working together, she being the brain, as it were, and Mr. Vivian the eye. You've been the eye, Mr. Vivian?"

"I've been the eye."

"But, despite all their ardour and assiduity, they have come to a sort of deadlock. In these circumstances they come to you, making me-as your, may I say intimate, friend?-their mouthpiece."

Here Lady Enid paused rather definitely, and cast a glance of apparently violent invitation at the Prophet, as if suggesting that he must now amplify and fill in her story. As he did not do so, a heavy silence fell in the room. Sir Tiglath had returned to his measuring, and Lady Enid, for the first time, began to look slightly embarrassed. Sending her eyes vaguely about the apartment, as people do on such occasions, she chanced to see a newspaper lying on the floor near to her. She bent down towards it, then raising herself up she said,-

"Mrs. Bridgeman some time ago came to the conclusion that there was probably oxygen in certain stars, and not only in the fixed stars."

At this remark the astronomer's countenance completely changed. He swung round in his revolving chair, wagged his huge head from side to side, and finally roared at the Prophet,-

"Is she telling the truth?"

"I beg your pardon," said the Prophet, bounding on the instruments.

"Get off those precious tools, young man, far more valuable than your finite carcase! Get off them this moment and answer me-is this young female speaking the truth?"

The Prophet got off the instruments and, in answer to a firm, Scottish gesture from Lady Enid, nodded his head twice.

"What!" continued Sir Tiglath, puffing out his cheeks, "a woman be a pioneer among the Heavenly Bodies!"

The Prophet nodded again, as mechanically as a penny toy.

"The old astronomer is exercised," bawled Sir Tiglath, with every symptom of acute perturbation. "He is greatly exercised by the narrative of the young female!"

So saying, he heaved himself up out of his chair and began to roll rapidly up and down the room, alternately distending his cheeks and permitting them to collapse.

"I should tell you also, Sir Tiglath," interposed Lady Enid, as if struck by a sudden idea, "that Mrs. Bridgeman's original adviser and assistant in her astronomical researches was a certain Mr. Sagittarius, who is also an intimate friend of Mr. Vivian's."

The Prophet sat down again upon the instruments with a thud.

"Get off those precious tools, young man!" roared the astronomer furiously. "Would you impose your vile body upon the henchmen of the stars?"

The Prophet got up again and leaned against the wall.

"I feel unwell," he said in a low voice. "Exceedingly unwell. I regret that I must really be going."

Lady Enid did not seem to regret this abrupt indisposition. Perhaps she thought that she had already accomplished her purpose. At any rate she got up too, and prepared to take leave. The astronomer was still in great excitement.

"Who is this Mr. Sagittarius?" he bellowed.

"A man of science. Isn't he, Mr. Vivian?"

"Yes."

"An astronomer of remarkable attainments, Mr. Vivian?"

"Yes."

"One knows not his abnormal name," cried the astronomer.

"He is very modest, very retiring. Mrs. Bridgeman's is really the only house in London at which you can meet him. Isn't that so, Mr. Vivian?"

"Yes."

"You say he has made investigation into the possibility of there being oxygen in many of the holy stars?"

"Mr. Vivian!"

"Yes."

"The old astronomer must encounter him!" exclaimed Sir Tiglath, puffing furiously as he rolled about the room.

"Mr. Vivian will arrange it," Lady Enid said, with sparkling eyes, "at Mrs. Bridgeman's. That's a bargain. Come, Mr. Vivian!"

And almost before the Prophet knew what she was doing, she had maneuvered him out into Kensington Square, and was pioneering him swiftly towards the High street.

"We'll take a hansom home," she said gaily, "and the man can drive as fast as ever he likes."

In half a minute the Prophet found himself in a hansom, bowling along towards Mayfair. The first words he said, when he was able to speak, were,-

"Why-Mr. Sagittarius-oh, why?"

Lady Enid smiled happily.

"It just struck me while I was talking to Sir Tiglath that I would introduce Mr. Sagittarius into the affair."

"Oh, why?"

"Why-because it seemed such an utterly silly thing to do," she answered. "Didn't it?"

The Prophet was silent.

"Didn't it?" she repeated. "A thing worthy of Miss Minerva."

It seemed to the Prophet just then as if Miss Minerva were going to wreck his life and prepare him accurately for a future in Bedlam.

"And besides you wouldn't tell me who Mr. Sagittarius was," she added.

The Prophet began to realise that it is very dangerous indeed to deny the curiosity of a woman.

"What a mercy it is," Lady Enid continued lightly, "that Malkiel is a syndicate, instead of a man. If he wasn't, and Sir Tiglath ever got to know him, he would try to murder him, and how foolish that would be! It would be rather amusing, though, to see Sir Tiglath do a thoroughly foolish thing, wouldn't it!"

The Prophet's blood ran cold in the cab, as he began, for the first time, to see clearly into the elaborate mind of Miss Minerva, into the curiously deliberate complications of a definite and determined folly. He perceived the danger that threatened the prophet who dwelt beside the Mouse, but he had recovered himself by this time sufficiently to meet craft with craft. And he therefore answered carelessly,-

"Yes, it is lucky that Malkiel's a syndicate."

When they reached Hill street Lady Enid said,-

"I'm so much obliged to you, Mr. Vivian, for all you've done for Miss Minerva."

"Not at all."

"The next step is to introduce you to Mrs. Bridgeman, and you can introduce her to Mr. Sagittarius. Then I'll introduce Sir Tiglath to her and she will introduce Mr. Sagittarius to him. It all works out so beautifully! Thank you a thousand times. You'll hear from me. Probably I'll give you your directions how to act to-morrow. Good-night."

The Prophet drove on to Berkeley Square, feeling that, between Mr. and Madame Sagittarius and Miss Minerva, he was being rapidly directed to his doom.

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