Signs & Portents





Chapter 25

A Scarce Heard Whisper


Carl found it a bit awkward strolling around the library of the Gnostic University but he persisted. He saw that Brother Gregory, or Gregorius or whatever he called himself, was keeping a watchful eye on him. He had come alone and was determined to do a little spying. It was quite possible that his mother was about to encounter something rather nasty from this place. He didn't like societies who sent cryptic messages in strange codes with warnings in them, even if the warnings were innocuous. It could be the preliminary to something much more menacing, something the O'Learys and Robert Harrold would not want to be involved in.

The building, he saw, was a splendid one, with something of the look of a Greek temple. It had not been built by the Gnostics themselves, however, but was the legacy of a bygone Berkeley millionaire. But obviously the style had appealed to the Gnostics and it must have cost them a pretty penny.

Along one side of the room, he had caught sight of opening and closing doors that appeared to contain offices of some kind. These were not open to the general public, but the room in which he stood was, but apparently under supervision only. From the general feeling, he did not believe that the public was exactly encouraged here. In such a situation, how did one get into these offices, where schemes were hatched and plans to foist them onto the people were laid? He smiled to himself, I should have told them I was the computer repairman. He weighed the chances of simply walking over and entering. Would someone move just as swiftly to head him off? Would he be expelled from the premises? There was no way to know. It would greatly depend on what, if anything, of course, he allowed for that possibility also, these people wanted to hide. Miri had blithely decided that the Gnostics had nothing to do with the weird message she had received, but he wasn't so sure.

Well, at least no one was hovering over him trying to convert him, that was a plus. He decided to wait it out a bit before doing anything precipitous. The problem with being expelled was that it might prove impossible or very difficult to be admitted again if this first mission failed to find out anything. But with a little patience and caution, he might see or hear something that would tell him all he wanted to know.

Casually, he selected a book from a shelf and chose a seat at one of the tables where he could keep both the office doors and Brother Gregory under surveillance. He noted that the surveillance was still mutual. He wished fervently that some additional members of the public would choose this moment to drop in to provide some distraction for his own private activities, but the room remained empty except for Brother Gregory.

He started to read his book selection which began "This is the wisdom of Mani, blessed be his name..." He studied Brother Gregory over it surreptitiously. The man had seemed a bit officious, but quite mild mannered. He decided the man was deluded and harmless and was beginning to feel silly when an acolyte opened two large doors at the other end of the room and revealed a large open courtyard beyond. Very nice, Carl thought. Others of the Gnostics came and went there, clustering in small groups talking.

It was more promising than the previous prospects. Perhaps there was a way, after all, to gain access to other parts of the building. At least, one could witness and possibly overhear some live Gnosticism in action. After a suitable interval, Carl rose and lifting the book in the air, he gestured toward the courtyard. Brother Gregory's face took on a displeased expression, but after a second, he intoned piously, "No books may be removed from the grounds." Carl considered a moment and decided that construed permission. He advanced on the courtyard, the Wisdom of Mani clutched in his hand. He seated himself on a marble bench and continued to pretend interest in the book. Brother Gregory, he noticed soon, had apparently found other fish to fry. He relocated nearer a discussion group and took time to puzzle out what he could of the building's layout. The conversation he overheard was inane nonsense to him, but seemingly harmless. The participants appeared to be mainly extolling some Gnostic philosopher's perception into the Cosmos.

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He saw Prunella Melchor come around the corner and halt immediately at the sight of him. She studied him silently, an unreadable expression on her face.

He rose and walked toward her, trying to decide whether he should speak to her directly and honestly or if he should dissemble, pretend he had developed a sudden interest in Gnosticism. He also wondered if his presence was embarrassing to her. When he drew near, however, she took the initiative away from him.

"Do not come here to see me," she hissed.

"Well, uh," Carl was taken aback in spite of himself and decided on at least partial honesty. "You see there was this little matter of a note from the ancient past. You know, from before printing was invented, only this one was printed? And specifically addressed to my mother? It was a kind of strange experience for my mother, she prefers her spirits to come right out and say what they have on their minds."

Prunella stared at him gravely, weighing what he had said.

"These people have nothing to do with that," she hissed again.

She gestured for him to follow her to a more isolated section of the garden. Here she raised her voice above a whisper but kept it low.

"Carl, have you ever considered that there might be a society that goes back to the very beginning, the origin of all things?"

"No," he confessed, "you mean the Gnostics go back that far?"

She gazed at him in distress and said nothing. He did not want to offend her, now that she was addressing him by name again. Through her, if nothing else, perhaps he would solve this whole business.

He tried to choose his next words carefully and keep his tone neutral and unaggressive. "I was under the impression that the Gnostics started right here in Berkeley not so long ago."

"Of course, they did!" her voice took a tone of pleading exasperation, "I don't mean these people. They are what they are. I mean just suppose there was such a thing. There are secret societies who make this claim, don't you know that? Is it so hard to imagine?"

"Well, okay," Carl said, "What does such a group call itself?"

"They don't call themselves anything, Carl, why should they? They are just," she hesitated, "just the agency."

Carl stared at her, many thoughts going through his mind. What exactly was she trying to say? Quite suddenly she looked past his shoulder and seemed to tense up.

"Don't come here again," she murmured and moving quickly, she stepped across to a doorway he had not seen because of the shrubbery and exited, closing the door behind her.

The action sent a cold chill down his spine but his reflexes were good. He remained perfectly still, facing the same direction for what he considered a suitable interval. Then, careful to make all his movements casual, he turned around to get a look at who had crept up behind them and presumably had precipitated her sudden departure. There was no one. For long minutes his eyes searched the terrain, scrutinizing and analyzing, looking for subtle movements among the shrubs, his considerations about the Gnostics now very dark indeed.

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But there was no one, the nearest group of Gnostics were apparently innocently and animatedly engrossed in their own discussion. Not one of them so much as looked up to notice him. The whole garden was a pastoral display of harmlessness.

Carl analyzed what Prunella had said. He noted that she had already known of the existence of the strange page, or at least, she made no pretense that she had not. She had said quite firmly that the Gnostics knew nothing about it. There was a definite implication that she did know about it. As for what she said about the "agency," it was too enigmatic to make a lot of sense, but it sent another small chill down his spine all the same. How very different she had been in Los Angeles. She was the strangest girl he had ever known, there were no other candidates to rival her.

Impulsively, he turned to the door through which she had departed. He reached out and tried the knob. It was locked, but he had known it would be. He placed the Wisdom of Mani carefully back on the shelf as he left.

And once again there gathered a scarce heard
Whisper among them; as it were, the stirr'd
Ashes of some all but extinguish't Tongue
Which mine ear kindled into living Word.


The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
as rendered into English by Edward Fitzgerald

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