The Professor has developed a sudden interest in worms. Unfortunately, someone recommends De Vermiis Mysteriis -- the mysteries of the worm -- to him and things are not quite the same thereafter.
The Professor tramped through the kitchen holding a shovelful of soil in front of him. Little clumps of it fell off and scattered across the floor -- the floor I'd finished scrubbing just a half-hour ago -- and the Professor was breathing heavily. Behind his wiry, tufty beard his cheeks were red and his chest was heaving as though he'd been trying to learn how to jog again. He was headed directly for the carpeted hallway that led to the drawing room.
"Can I help you there, Professor?" I said. My voice always sounds thin in the kitchen because it's just a big, stone-clad space. The Professor stopped and looked round at me.
"Jim? Oh, there you are boy. I was wondering why I hadn't seen you this morning. What are you doing down here?" Each sentence was interspersed with a gasp as the Professor tried to get his breath back.
"I was scrubbing the floors first," I couldn't stop myself from making a small point though the Professor missed it, "and I've just been getting lunch ready."
"Lunch?" The Professor was suddenly interested, and stood the shovel's blade on the floor so he could lean on the handle. Soil cascaded everywhere. "What's for lunch today then?"
"Chicken and leek pie," I said. "The gardener reckons that we're nearly at the end of the leeks though, and the poultry-girl keeps crying when I ask her for chickens instead of eggs, so this might be the last one for a while. What were you doing with the shovel, Professor?"
"What poultry-girl?" The professor looked puzzled, then he looked down at the mess on the floor. He sighed, and thrust the shovel at me. "Can't you keep the floors clean, Jim? I do still pay you, don't I?"
"Yes, Professor." He also provided me with a room to sleep in, food to eat, and some semblance of a family.
"And when you've finished cleaning the floors, get some soil in here. I want to construct a wormery; worms are most fascinating creatures you know! I've had a letter from my friend Joachim von Götzburg, wherein he describes the wormery that he's built in one of the Götzburg stables. Thirteen thousand tons of soil! And he's reporting vigorous wormiage, he says they can reduce a horse to compost in just three days! Can you imagine that, Jim?"
"Dead or alive, Professor?" I asked, wanting to seem polite. I had no desire at all to carry thirteen thousand tons of anything anywhere, and worms seemed like rather uninteresting creatures to me. They lived in the ground and kept to themselves, and I was happy for things to stay that way.
"Do you know, he didn't say," said the Professor. A faraway look appeared in his eyes while he contemplated this thought. "I suppose the thing to do will be to test it ourselves, Jim! What a fantastic idea you had! Now, get this floor clean and bring me the soil to the dining room. And don't let any worms escape while you're bringing the soil in, we'll be needing them."
The Professor disappeared off, presumably to the dining room to start putting his wormery together, and I got the broom out to sweep the soil out of the back door. The soil was quite dry and friable, and I realised that I wouldn't need to scrub the floors again after all, at least not until tomorrow. Then I found a bucket, shovelled soil into it until it was three-quarters full, and set off for the dining room.
"In there." The Professor pointed at the aquarium that housed nearly forty fish. It sat in a large tank on a dresser and provided guests with something to watch when the Professor was in one of his awkward moods and was refusing to talk while there was food on the table.
"And where should the fish go?" I put the bucket down, realising that I'd have to get another to transfer the fish out in.
"What? Nowhere. They're going to be food for the worms. I think our worms should be capable of composting a fish from the off, after all Joachim's from Götzburg and everything there is white and sickly. His managed to compost a horse, don't forget."
I hadn't forgotten, not least because of the Professor's casual decision to try feeding a live horse to the worms, but I still balked at burying the fish for the worms.
"Are you sure, Professor? They do provoke conversation amongst guest--"
"So will the worms Jim! Now stop chattering and tip the soil in the aquarium. Look on the bright side, at least you won't have to water the worms for a few days this way."
Can worms swim? I wondered as I tipped the soil in with a gentle splash and headed back outside for another bucketload. I would have loved to have saved the fish, but the Professor was clearly intending to supervise the whole operation and I wouldn't get a chance.