In addition, during the long walk home it began to rain. So it was a very sodden fellow who returned to the Professor’s townhouse that teatime. I quickly stripped off my damp riding gear and changed into something a bit drier.
I was just about to sneak into the study and see if the good Professor had any “medicinal” brandy, when the man himself appeared from the study.
“Ah, your Lordship!” he said enthusiastically. “Just the fellow I wished to see.”
“Really,” I said, somewhat distractedly.
“Oh yes,” he said. “Come in, come in,” he beckoned.
Reluctantly, I followed him into the study. A wide variety of objects and curios lined the walls, filling shelves and glass-fronted cases. I turned my head upon entering, and came face to face with a strange creature, all white, with no arms but two legs, and a pudgy, bulbous shape that reminded me of a pear, or the Mayor. The small mustache worn by the creature only completed the resemblance. It was stuffed, of course.
Many other surfaces were covered with pinned beetles, their glittering carapaces setting the room ablaze with chitinous fire.
The Professor led me over to a disarrayed workbench. I idly picked up an odd-looking brass device. “What is this, pray?” I asked.
“Oh that,” the Professor said dismissively. “Device I invented for getting sunbeams out of cucumbers. Old news, your Lordship.”
I set the strange device down as the Professor gestured triumphantly at a stack of papers. “Voila,” he cried.
“Yes?” I said politely. “And? What is it?”
“Why, it is only my life’s work,” he said, looking simultaneously aghast and affronted. “A manuscript that shall put the name of Aristotle Papagoras on the map!”
Oh. Wonderful. I shall endure a lecture on natural philosophy, I thought. “Congratulations.”
“I shall tell you about it; after all, a clever young man such as yourself must have an appetite for knowledge. Tell me, are you familiar with the works of Erasmus Darwin?”
No. “Very slightly, Professor.”
“In his Zoönomia, Darwin puts forth the most novel theory: that all creatures arose from some primal ‘filament,’ as he calls it, and were not individually created by the Lord as Sedgwick would have it.”
“Well, that makes a variety of sense, I suppose.”
“Indeed,” said the Professor happily. “Clearly organisms change over the course of their lives, so why should not species?”
“And we see inheritance amongst ourselves. Everyone tells me I have my mother’s nose.”
“And when my father dies, I shall get all his money.”
“Preci--no, that is…there is perhaps a limit to how practical a metaphor is…”
I turned my attention to the stack of papers. “And I presume you have written a monograph on the subject?”
“Not merely a monograph, but the definitive work, my boy,” he said excitedly. “Why, I have found evidence of transmutation itself, on the far side of the globe.”
“Really?!” I said, interested. I care very little about natural philosophy, but I have always enjoyed tales of the exotic and of faraway destinations.
“Yes, yes, on the Galápagos Islands. Do you know them?”
“Unfortunately, I do not.”
“Some miles off the coast of Peru, in the Pacific Ocean,” he said as he struggled to open a large atlas. Once he found the correct page, he pointed to a tiny archipelago. “I ventured there some years ago, as a young man, and you’ll never guess what I found!”
“What?” I asked, and was a little alarmed to realise I was amused by the Professor’s obvious enthusiasm.
“Finches!” he shouted triumphantly.
“Yes, they are a variety of bird.”
“I know what a finch is, Professor.”
“Very good, very good,” he said. “Now, these finches had any number of different types of beak, each one well suited to eating the differing fruits found on the islands.”
“That makes sense; a heron eats frogs, and a wren eats insects, and their beaks are very different.”
“Exactly!” crowed the Professor. “As the finches ate different fruits, their beaks changed to suit their food. But that is not all.”
“No indeed, my boy. For on these islands are great tortoises, as well as iguanas that live in the ocean.”
“Tortoises and iguanas. Fascinating,” I said.
“And do you know what they have in common?”
“I must confess I do not.”
The Professor grinned at me through his snowy white beard. “It was the same with me, it took me forever to see it, but the answer is…BEAKS!” he shouted.
“I see…” I did not see at all, but when a man grins at you like that, you choose your words carefully, to avoid pushing him from “modestly eccentric” to “dangerously insane.”
“Both the tortoises and the iguanas have beaks, just like the finches.”
“Therefore, what my manuscript proposes is the obvious truth: the finches must have arrived first on the islands, and transmuted themselves into the tortoises and iguanas.”
“All perfectly logical, my dear boy.” Seeing my apparent confusion, he patted me on the arm. “You are obviously unacquainted with the subtler arguments of science.”
“Well, with men of such vigor and intellect as yourself in command, I dare say science is in good hands,” I said, while trying to find a convenient exit.
Fortunately for me, at that very moment, Miss Thomasina entered the room. Pausing to curtsy, she said to me, “Your lordship, a young man came by moments ago with this for you.” She handed me a small envelope.
“Pardon me, Professor,” I said, and he made genial away-with-you motions as I exited the study, relieved at the timely arrival of this missive.
Curious, I opened the envelope and discovered a thin card of vellum inside. Extracting it, I was momentarily taken aback by the words writ upon it.
Wishes to Inform The Reader That She Will Be
On the Night of June --, 1794.
The Reader’s Attendance is Requested
As I held the card in my hand, I was intrigued.
The game was afoot.