The wrong kind of soil

"It's the wrong kind of soil!"  The Professor was agitated, almost to the point of dancing on the spot.  His dressing gown swirled around him as he twisted and turned, holding his copy of De Vermiis Mysteriis open with both hands.  "Joachim hinted at this in his last letter when he talked about the alkaline nature; I thought he was just being obtuse because, obviously, the Neapolitan worms have all been acidic.  I thought that clay would do the trick, but now I see that I've been looking at things entirely the wrong way round!"

"Breakfast," I said, laying sausages, saltimbocca, semolina and suet pudding out on the table.  The Professor had been saying things like this ever since he'd started reading De Vermiis Mysteriis, and I was waiting for the time when he announced that we had the wrong type of worms.

"Very good, Jim," he said.  "Now, I need you to go outside and dig a pit and fill it with branches from the rowan tree.  That's the Mountain Ash, in case you didn't know.  When you've done that, come and find me.  I'll probably be in the wormeries picking out the healthiest worms.  We've got so much work still to do!"

"Yes, Professor," I said.  I left the dining room and went to the Library; I had no idea what the rowan, or mountain ash, tree looked like.  I finally found a picture in a herbal and realised that there were a couple of copses of it on the far side of the estate.  Naturally.

Half-way through digging the pit, when I actually thought I was finished, the Professor came out and told me that the pit needed to be twice as large.  I tried to smile, wiped the sweat from my forehead, and carried on digging.

When the pit was complete and full of branches, and I was sat on the step to the backdoor, scratched, bruised, with sweat stinging all my little cuts and abrasions, the Professor added some more of his salts and chemicals to the branches and set fire to them.

"I shall keep an eye on the fire for now," he said, grinning like a small boy at a bonfire, "while you start on dinner."  Grateful for the chance to do something less strenuous than digging, I went inside to clean up.  Down in the cellar, I noticed that the poultry-girl was missing; neither was she with the hens when I went down there to find a duck for dinner.  I hoped she'd run away; I'd thought for a while that she was trying to drink herself to death.

The fire finished burning after the sun had set, leaving a pit filled with fine white ash and lumps of charcoal.

The End

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