Vermiology

A letter had arrived in the post, and I recognised the jet-black ink and the Blackletter handwriting straight-away.  My heart sank a little; Joachim von Götzburg had sent the Professor another letter.  I slipped the letter onto the Professor's tray, on which was his breakfast of kippers, kidneys and kale, and carried it into the dining room.

The Professor was sat one place to the left of the head of the dining table, still wearing his dressing gown over his blue-velvet pyjamas, watching the wormery intently.  The aquarium that I'd filled with earth, interring the fish and repopulating it with worms, was a now a brownish-black box in which little tunnels could seen, down which worms would occasionally wander.  The last of the fish had been composted now, not even their delicate white skeletons could be seen any more, and the Professor had been wondering what to compost next for the past day.  He'd wanted to experiment on horses, but I'd dissuaded him by pointing out that the wormery was too small for a horse, dead or alive.

"Where's my tea?" said the Professor looking at his breakfast.

"We have no tea that starts with a K," I said.  "No coffee either."

"Beer then," said the Professor looking enormously pleased.  "Some of that Klausthalle that I had last night would go very well with these kidneys."

"Yes, well,..."

"Yes well what?  What's the problem now, Jim?  Don't you agree with beer at breakfast?"

"I don't have an opinion," I said slowly, "it's just that the poultry-girl's been hanging around in the beer cellar and I was hoping to stay away from her."

"Really Jim, you should learn to get on with the other members of my household.  Just be nice to the poor girl, and I'm sure you'll be the best of friends.  Whoever she may be.  Now, after I've had breakfast, we need to bring down the aquaria from the attic.  I'm sure that mother had a few more tanks; you can put them in the fourth guest bedroom for now.  I think we need more space for the worms."

"That's quite a big tank already, Professor," I said.  The attic stairs were steep and creaked alarming like they were going to give way, and I wasn't happy about having to carry heavy glass aquaria around either.

"Yes, but we'll be getting some more worms either today or tomorrow.  I've ordered some from France, some from Italy and some from Romania.  Aha!  I see Joachim has written to me again!"  The Professor seized the letter and his butter knife, slicing one open with the other.  "Let us see what he has to say for himself!"

I went to fetch the Klausthalle, a beer made by monks and so significantly stronger than that made by any of the London Brewing Houses, while the Professor read his letter.  The poultry-girl was still in the beer cellar but was passed out on a hundredweight of hops that the Professor was yet to brew beer with.  From the smell, even over that of the hops, I concluded that she'd found the brandy.

"Jim!"  The Professor sounded so delighted as I returned to the dining room that I nearly dropped his jug of beer.  "This is amazing news; Joachim sounds quite jealous of our fish-eating worms and has asked that I send him some; apparently his worms will only eat pork.  I knew that good old British worms would outclass any others, any day!"

I almost asked him why he buying worms from abroad, but bit my tongue just in time, and poured him a glass of beer instead.  The beer frothed like the water at the bottom of a mill-race, and a strong smell of malt rose from the glass.

"Hmm, he's also said that there's a book I might quite like to look out for... where does he mention that again?"  The Professor flicked through the pages on the letter, his other hand holding a forgotten kidney speared on his fork.  In front of him I noticed that the worms in the wormery had all congregated at the front of the tank and were writhing against the glass, making a very faint slithering, almost hissing noise.  "Ah, here it is!  De Vermiis Mysteriis."

"Pardon, Professor?"  I couldn't take my eyes off the worm-mass.

"De Vermiis Mysteriis.  The mysteries of the worm, undoubtedly a compendium of worm facts and breeding tips."

"Or the new Sherlock Holmes story," I said, finally dragging my eyes from the thin wriggling things in the tank.

"Who?"

"Oh, he's a charac--"

"Jim, I don't care.  You can have all the imaginary friends you want.  However, this morning I want you to go to Charing Cross Road and look for this book for me.  I should think that one of the booksellers there -- DeCourtney's maybe -- would stock it."

"Yes, Professor."  I left the dining room with the jug of Klausthalle and a profound sense of relief that I was away from the worms.

The End

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