Home > Snuff (Discworld #39)(11)

Snuff (Discworld #39)(11)
Terry Pratchett

As Vimes turned it over in his hands, searching forensically for any sign of foul play, there was a flip-flop sound approaching through the shrubbery, accompanied by a vocal number on the subject of what a person unknown would do to people who stole skulls off him. When the bushes parted said person unknown turned out to be a man of uncertain age and teeth, a grubby brown robe and a beard longer than any Vimes had seen before, and Vimes was a man who had often been inside Unseen University, where wizards considered that wisdom was embodied in the growing of a beard that would keep the knees warm. This one tailed cometlike behind its owner. It caught up with him when his hugely sandaled feet slithered to a stop, but its momentum meant that it began to pile up on his head. Possibly it carried wisdom with it, because its owner was bright enough to stop dead when he saw the look in Vimes’s eye. There was silence, apart from the chuckling of Young Sam as the endless beard, with a life of its own, settled on the man like the snows of winter.

Willikins cleared his throat, and said, “I think this is the hermit, commander.”

“What’s a hermit doing here? I thought they lived up poles in deserts!” Vimes glared at the raggedy man, who clearly felt that an explanation was called for and was going to deliver it whether it was called for or not.

“Yes, sir, I know, sir, that is a popular delusion, and personally I’ve never given it much credence, on account of the difficulty of dealing with what I might call the bathroom necessities and similar. I mean, that sort of thing might be all right in foreign parts, where there’s sunshine and lots of sand, but it wouldn’t do for me, sir, no indeed.”

The apparition held out a grubby hand that was mostly fingernails and went on, proudly, “Stump, your grace, although I’m not often stumped, haha, my little joke.”

“Yes, it is,” said Vimes, keeping his eyes blank.

“Indeed it is, sir,” said Stump. “The only one I’ve got. I’ve been following the noble profession of herming here for nigh on fifty-seven years, practicing piety, sobriety, celibacy and the pursuit of the true wisdom in the tradition of my father and grandfather and great-grandfather before me. That’s my great-grandfather you are holding, there, sir,” he added cheerfully. “Lovely sheen, hasn’t he?” Vimes managed not to drop the skull he was holding. Stump went on, “I expect your little boy wandered into my grotto, sir, no offense meant, sir, but the village lads round here are a bit frolicsome sometimes and I had to get granddad out of the tree only two weeks ago.”

It was Willikins who found the mental space to say, “You keep your great-grandfather’s skull in a cave?”

“Oh yes, gentlemen, and my father’s. Family tradition, see? And my grandfather’s. Unbroken tradition of herming for nearly three hundred years, dispensing pious thinking and the knowledge that all paths lead but to the grave, and other somber considerations, to all those who seek us out—who are precious few these days, I might add. I hope my son will be able to step into my sandals when he’s old enough. His mother says that he’s turning out a very solemn young man, so I live in hopes that one day he might be giving me a right good polishin’ up. There’s plenty of room on the skull shelf back in the grotto, I’m pleased to say.”

“Your son?” said Vimes. “You mentioned celibacy?”

“Very attentive of you, your grace. We get a week’s holiday every year. A man cannot live by snails and herbs of the riverbank alone … .”

Vimes delicately indicated that they had ground to cover, and left the hermit carefully carrying the family relic back to his grotto, wherever that was. When they seemed to be safely out of earshot he said, waving his hands in the air, “Why? I mean … why?”

“Oh, quite a few of the really old ancestral homes had a hermit on the strength, sir. It was considered romantic to have a grotto with a hermit in it.”

“He was a bit whiffy on the nose,” said Vimes.

“Not allowed to bathe, I believe, sir, and you should know, sir, that he gets an allowance consisting of two pounds of potatoes, three pints of small beer or cider, three loaves of bread and one pound of pork dripping per week. And presumably all the snails and herbs of the riverbank he can force down. I looked at the accounts, sir. Not a bad diet for an ornamental garden feature.”

“Not too bad if you throw in some fruit and the occasional laxative, I suppose,” said Vimes. “So Sybil’s ancestors used to come along and talk to the hermit whenever they were faced with a philosophical conundrum, yes?”

Willikins looked puzzled. “Good heavens, no, sir, I can’t imagine that any of them would ever dream of doing that. They never had any truck with philosophical conundra.** They were aristocrats, you see? Aristocrats don’t notice philosophical conundra. They just ignore them. Philosophy includes contemplating the possibility that you might be wrong, sir, and a real aristocrat knows that he is always right. It’s not vanity, you understand, it’s built-in absolute certainty. They may sometimes be as mad as a hatful of spoons, but they are always definitely and certainly mad.”

Vimes stared at him in admiration. “How the hell do you know all this, Willikins?”

“Watched them, sir. In the good old days when her ladyship’s granddad was alive he made certain that the whole staff of Scoone Avenue came down here with the family in the summer. As you know, I’m not much of a scholar and, truth to tell, neither are you, but when you grow up on the street you learn fast because if you don’t learn fast you’re dead.”

Hot Novels
  • Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Chris
  • Fifty Shades Freed (Fifty Shades #3)
  • Never Too Far (Too Far Trilogy #2)
  • Fifty Shades Darker (Fifty Shades #2)
  • Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine’s Peculi
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades #1)
  • Fallen Too Far (Too Far Trilogy #1)
  • Forever Too Far (Too Far Trilogy #3)
  • Ugly Love
  • Allegiant (Divergent #3)
  • Hold on Tight (Sea Breeze #8)
  • Bared to You (Crossfire #1)
  • The Destiny of Violet & Luke (The Coinc
  • Captivated by You (Crossfire #4)
  • Uprooted