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The Entomological Tales of Augustus T. Percival : Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone
You would think Petronella's sixteenth birthday would be cause for celebration. After all, fashionable friends are arriving at her country estate near London, teas are being served, and her coming out party promises to be a resplendent affair. Everything is falling nicely into place, until, suddenly--it isn't. For Petronella discovers that her guardian, Uncle Augustus T. Percival, has developed a most unVictorian compulsion: He must eat bugs. Worse still, because he is her guardian, Uncle Augustus is to attend her soiree and his current state will most definitely be an embarrassment.
During the festivities, when Petronella would much rather be sharing pleasantries with handsome Lord James Sinclair (swoon), important guests are disappearing, kidnapping notes are appearing, many of the clues are insects, and Uncle Augustus is surreptitiously devouring evidence. It's more than one sixteen-year-old girl should have to deal with. But, truth be told, there is far more yet to come . . .
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children
May 31, 2009
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Excerpt from The Entomological Tales of Augustus T. Percival by Dene Low
In Which an Intruder Is Incoming
There is something terribly wrong with Mr. Augustus T. Percival. The wrongness can be traced to a particular occurrence at a specific time--12:47 and 32 seconds on May 26 in 1903, to be exact. (I had just looked at my watch.) The weather was unusually warm for the season, and so Mr. Percival--who is my uncle Augustus--a few select friends, and myself were gathered on the lawn in the south garden of my estate just outside London, enjoying a little nuncheon in honor of my sixteenth birthday. At that precise time, Uncle Augustus laughed loudly at a rather mediocre joke--the one about the man with two heads who could eat only strawberry jam with one mouth and cheese curds with the other. At the very moment Uncle Augustus opened his own mouth for a most unseemly guffaw (and Uncle Augustus is a very large man, so the rather moist open mouth made a massively large target), a beetle of enormous proportions flew into the orifice and was swallowed.
Unfortunately, we did not know what type or genus the beetle was, or a cure might have been effected. Uncle Augustus sat deathly still, with all signs of his former joviality banished. He set down his cup of tea undrunk, pushed away the plates piled high with crumpets and cucumber sandwiches, said "Perhaps I don't feel quite the thing after all," and departed to his room.
My other guests and I paused for an awkward moment, and then continued in polite conversation, just as those who occupy the upper echelons of society ought to do when faced with unusual circumstances. Then we, too, departed to our rooms for a nap to fortify ourselves for the evening's festivities.
No one was more startled than I, when, several hours later, I saw Uncle Augustus on his hands and knees, groveling in the newly turned earth of the east garden. Rushing to see if I might be of some assistance to my beloved relation, I was horrified to see him pounce, then hold up a wriggling centipede. Before I could do more than gasp, Uncle Augustus dropped the squirming creature into his mouth--which I have previously described all too graphically--and swallowed the cartilaginous body with seeming relish (the emotion, not the condiment).
"Uncle Augustus . . ." He beamed at me from his prostration in the dirt. "Ah, my dear Eunice. So good to see you again." I considered his greeting rather imbecilic, considering that he was groveling in my garden and we'd only just parted company a few hours before. Besides, he knew I preferred to be called Petronella. Eunice is such an unfortunate name, and I cannot imagine what came over my dear but deceased parents when they gave it to me. Perhaps some sort of simultaneous apoplectic fit. "Uncle Augustus," I said more severely and pointed toward the garden bed, which Thomas the gardener had taken great pains to till in preparation for the dahlias I had hoped to plant on Saturday. "What are you doing?" Uncle Augustus frowned. He tapped one finger on his chin, then waggled it at me thoughtfully. "I've been contemplating that myself. The question seems to be not so much what I am doing, but what I've become. It appears I have developed an enormous appetite--" "Yes, well, that is common knowledge," I could not help but agree.
"Ahem. Let me continue uninterrupted, if you please. It seems I have an enormous appetite for all things of the insect and arachnoid varieties." He caught a passing fly in one swift movement of his hand, popped it into his mouth, and chewed happily.
I could do naught but stare. For the first time in my life I was at a loss for words. The sight of Uncle Augustus's enormous jowls expanding and contracting with disturbing regularity was enough to make anyone stare, but that was not the cause of my distress. Over the years that he had been my guardian, I had become inured to the sight of Uncle Augustus eating. No, I was contemplating that it was my moral duty to render assistance to Uncle Augustus through this trial. Blood will out, as they say, and he was my blood relative, brother to my dear departed mother, whom I missed terribly. The question was, how was I to help him?
"Oh, Uncle," I said finally.
"Do not fret yourself, my child. I have examined myself rather thoroughly, and seem to be in fine fettle, except for this compulsion to eat crawling creatures." He eyed the ground next to him for a moment and grabbed a spider that had the misfortune to have ventured forth from its lair. It quickly shared the fate of the fly.
"You cannot possibly desire to continue in this state," I protested, concerned for his well-being.
"And why not? I feel better than I have in years." He used both hands to pluck a series of ants ffrom the retaining wall about the garden plot, his fingers darting from the stones to his lips so rapidly I could scarcely see them except as a blur. I hhhhhad never known Uncle Augustus to move so quickly. Indeed, there was a glow of health about him that I had not seen before. "Could you please stop that . . . that . . . inhaling of those odious bugs and talk sensibly to me?" Uncle Augustus paused and fixed his gaze on me most consideringly as one of his hands seemed to move of its own volition toward a pile of stones. He caught it with his other hand and held it tightly. Both hands shook with the effort of keeping still, and, for the first time, he seemed a trifle alarmed. "Why, no. I don't seem to be able to." "Be able to what? Stop? Or talk sensibly?" "Stop, of course. Nor do I see any reason why I should stop. And I feel that, under the circumstances, I am conversing quite rationally." He began sorting through the pile of stones. When he found a fat slug, he held it up triumphantly and then lowered it toward his gaping maw. I could not watch him further, and so I turned my back, pressing my eyes shut in horror at the loud slurping noise that followed. "Uncle Augustus," I said through gritted teeth. "I cannot imagine that your behavior is at all socially acceptable. Surely that is a reason to want to stop gorging yourself on creeping crawling things." "My dear Eunice--" "Petronella!" I said.
"If you must . . . Petronella. Although your dear mother loved the name Eunice." "Well, I do not--and neither did my father, which is why Petronella is my first name." "Very well, then, Petronella. You have always been more concerned with the conventions of society than I have--" "Unfortunately, that is so." "--Except when you interrupt. I must say this penchant you have for interrupting is most uncivil." I was mortified to realize he was correct. "I apologize, dear uncle. My concern for you overwhelmed me to the point of rudeness." He did not answer immediately, and when he did, he sounded as if he had just swallowed something. I shuddered to think what it was. "Apology accepted, dear child. However, I can see that my current state could be something of an embarrassment in polite company, which is especially problematic because my presence is required at this evening's event." I swung around to face him, my mouth open in a perfect O of consternation. "Tonight! Oh, Uncle Augustus. This would have to happen today of all days, just when I am about to attend my coming-out party. James will be so disappointed." My hand flew to cover my mouth. "I mean, Jane will be so disappointed, and so will all the other guests." Uncle Augustus seemed not to have heard my slip of the tongue-- one that Dr. Freud would have made much of, if I understand his theories correctly--for my cherished relative seemed intent on going about his hunting. "And why should your little friends be disappointed?" "We cannot possibly hold the party if you are in such a condition." Pausing only long enough to fix me with a thoughtful gaze, Uncle Augustus said, "Fear not, dear Eunice, er . . . Petronella. We shall not deprive your friends of your company. I have thought of a plan."