A Most Singular Specimen
It was a loathsome thing indeed that lay prostrate on Dietrichson’s dissecting table, a huge grub almost two feet long and eleven inches around the girth which contracted and expanded with each dying breath. Folds of glistening white skin rose and fell in regular rhythm, until at last it expired with a burbling hiss. The gas had taken its effect. Dietrichson put aside the moisture-clouded glass dome which had acted as a killing jar and examined the grub with his magnifying glass.
In all his years as an amateur entymologist he had never come across such a specimen. Surely there was unlikely to be one comparable to it in all London, or perhaps not even in the entire world. In every respect it resembled a large maggot of the kind which had first fired his imagination as a schoolboy almost forty years earlier, and yet in several respects it differed considerably. Quite apart from its size the skin was smooth and leathery. Even under the light of the oil lamp it failed to reveal the map of veins and blood vessels normally to be seen beneath the translucent skin of common grubs. Moreover, it was covered from one end to the other in tiny white hairs.
‘More like a blanched caterpillar,’ he thought as he ran the glass over it one final time. How long had it lain undetected behind the greenhouse? And how could it have grown so large and so heavy, he wondered? He could testify to its considerable weight having carried it across the lawn, cradled in his arms like a baby only an hour before. Mother was still up then, finishing her sampler in the living room, and so he had paused by the conservatory to recover some sacking with which to cover it. There seemed no point in alarming her unduly should she have chanced upon him carrying it through the hall. But he had not been disturbed.
With his preliminary notes now complete, he turned to the glinting collection of scalpels, forceps and other instruments on his right which would have been the envy of any Harley Street specialist. Selecting a particular fine example, he ran a critical forefinger along its lethal edge. Yes, this one would do fine.
The first incision he made in its near side about midway along the body. The scalpel slid in at the touch and as it did so a large globule of fat ran down between the folds of flesh forming a pool in the metal tray. Now to dig deeper, to penetrate the veined, transparent pulp. But as he cut his subject issued a pained and piercing screech, the like of which he never wished to hear again.
Dietrichson recoiled. He never would have begun the dissection had he known it was still alive. But now, as its vital fluids drained away, there could be no doubt. It was dead.
Thankfully its scream would not have awoken mother. She always took a sleeping draught before retiring. However, he could be certain that all Greenwich must have been aroused. He reached for the decanter and poured himself a large brandy. He needed fresh air now, and damn the hour.
Pausing only to collect his oilskin, bowler and horsehead umbrella from the hat stand he slipped out of the house, across the street and strode smartly over the railway bridge. The rain had stopped, though another downpour seemed imminent judging by the grey clouds gathering ominously overhead. He flicked the umbrella under his right arm, patted his bowler into place and quickened the pace. He wanted to be as far away from his study and that…that thing as he could possibly be.
He was forced to stop at the corner of Market Street as the last tram trundled past on its way to the depot before resuming his march towards the maze of neat suburban streets which ran down the south side of the town. It was just as he turned into the first of these broad, tree-lined avenues that he heard for the first time. It began as a rustling somewhere behind him on the opposite side of the street. Turning he could distinguish nothing amidst the shadows and resumed his walk. Then it came again. A rustling amidst the trees on the far side and louder than before. He quickened his pace all the while glancing back towards the direction of his pursuer, for pursued he was, though by what?
He made a left into another ill-lit street. The gas lamps glow was eagerly swallowed up in the darkness and gave no comfort as he glanced nervously over his shoulder. Had he eluded it? No, of course not, for there it was again. It was gaining on him, though he heard no footfall. He judged it to be moving in and out of the tree tops, see, the leafy branches were teasing him with their unnatural sway. Another left and he was heading back the way he had come. If only he could make it to the house. Glancing around he saw a mass of shadow rise momentarily above the trees and then descend again like a leaden thundercloud. Now he was running, running for his life. Up ahead he could see an unbroken line of semidetached houses, a barrier, a dead end. It was almost upon him.
Left again into an alleyway. Surely it would not follow him here. But yes…it came. As he ran his chest aching with each gulp of chilled air, he felt it bearing down upon him. Then to his horror he saw that ahead towered an insurmountable wall. On the other side the avenue and escape. Behind… The creature was almost upon him. He flattened himself against the wall, there being no hope of scaling it, no footholds in the brick work, only a drainpipe which had broken off half way up.
He thrust his left arm between the drainpipe and the wall and clung on for dear life. In his right he still had the umbrella and turning waved it in a desperate fashion to fend off the fiend. For a moment it hovered just out of reach of the blunt umbrella tip, its shadow falling across the entire width of the wall. It was the shadow of a giant winged insect with a long, tapered body like that of a moth, but with a glistening white belly replete with writhing feelers and a pair of hideous eyes which waved on spindly antennae.
Dietrichson was rigid with fear, unable even to cry for help, not that it would have done him any good to do so.
The mighty wings beat faster and the draught tore the umbrella from his grasp. He hugged the drainpipe now with both hands as his feet were lifted from the ground, but still the wings beat faster. Then the hideous insect issued a screech like that of the grub he had cut into only an hour before, only this was the full-throated cry of an adult.
It was the last sound he was ever to hear. A moment later he and the drainpipe were sucked out from the wall.
from The Curious Case of Richard Fielding and Other Stories (1987)
by Paul Roland (Kindle edition)