The Stark Munro Letters, by Arthur Conan Doyle

VI. THE PARADE, BRADFIELD, 7th March, 1882.

It is only two days since I wrote to you, my dear old chap, and yet I find myself loaded to the muzzle and at full cock again. I have come to Bradfield. I have seen old Cullingworth once more, and I have found that all he has told me is true. Yes; incredible as it sounded, this wonderful fellow seems to have actually built up a great practice in little more than a year. He really is, with all his eccentricities, a very remarkable man, Bertie. He doesn’t seem to have a chance of showing his true powers in this matured civilisation. The law and custom hamper him. He is the sort of fellow who would come right to the front in a French Revolution. Or if you put him as Emperor over some of these little South American States, I believe that in ten years he would either be in his grave, or would have the Continent. Yes; Cullingworth is fit to fight for a higher stake than a medical practice, and on a bigger stage than an English provincial town. When I read of Aaron Burr in your history I always picture him as a man like C.

I had the kindest of leave takings from Horton. If he had been my brother he could not have been more affectionate. I could not have thought that I should grow so fond of a man in so short a time. He takes the keenest interest in my venture, and I am to write him a full account. He gave me as we parted a black old meerschaum which he had coloured himself — the last possible pledge of affection from a smoker. It was pleasant for me to feel that if all went wrong at Bradfield, I had a little harbour at Merton for which I could make. Still, of course, pleasant and instructive as the life there was, I could not shut my eyes to the fact that it would take a terribly long time before I could save enough to buy a share in a practice — a longer time probably than my poor father’s strength would last. That telegram of Cullingworth’s in which, as you may remember, he guaranteed me three hundred pounds in the first year, gave me hopes of a much more rapid career. You will agree with me, I am sure, that I did wisely to go to him.

I had an adventure upon the way to Bradfield. The carriage in which I was travelling contained a party of three, at whom I took the most casual of glances before settling down to the daily paper. There was an elderly lady, with a bright rosy face, gold spectacles, and a dash of red velvet in her bonnet. With her were two younger people, who I took to be her son and her daughter — the one a quiet, gentle-looking girl of twenty or so, dressed in black, and the other a short, thick-set young fellow, a year or two older. The two ladies sat by each other in the far corner, and the son (as I presume him to be) sat opposite me. We may have travelled an hour or more without my paying any attention to this little family party, save that I could not help hearing some talk between the two ladies. The younger, who was addressed as Winnie, had, as I noticed, a very sweet and soothing voice. She called the elder “mother,” which showed that I was right as to the relationship.

I was sitting, then, still reading my paper, when I was surprised to get a kick on the shins from the young fellow opposite. I moved my legs, thinking that it was an accident, but an instant afterwards I received another and a harder one. I dropped my paper with a growl, but the moment that I glanced at him I saw how the matter stood. His foot was jerking spasmodically, his two hands clenched, and drumming against his breast, while his eyes were rolling upwards until only the rim of his iris was to be seen. I sprang upon him, tore open his collar, unbuttoned his waistcoat, and pulled his head down upon the seat. Crash went one of his heels through the carriage window, but I contrived to sit upon his knees while I kept hold of his two wrists.

“Don’t be alarmed!” I cried, “it’s epilepsy, and will soon pass!”

Glancing up, I saw that the little girl was sitting very pale and quiet in the corner. The mother had pulled a bottle out of her bag and was quite cool and helpful.

“He often has them,” said she, “this is bromide.”

“He is coming out,” I answered; “you look after Winnie.”

I blurted it out because her head seemed to rock as if she were going off; but the absurdity of the thing struck us all next moment, and the mother burst into a laugh in which the daughter and I joined. The son had opened his eyes and had ceased to struggle.

“I must really beg your pardon,” said I, as I helped him up again. “I had not the advantage of knowing your other name, and I was in such a hurry that I had no time to think what I was saying.”

They laughed again in the most good-humoured way, and, as soon as the young fellow had recovered, we all joined in quite a confidential conversation. It is wonderful how the intrusion of any of the realities of life brushes away the cobwebs of etiquette. In half an hour we knew all about each other, or at any rate I knew all about them. Mrs. La Force was the mother’s name, a widow with these two children. They had given up housekeeping, and found it more pleasant to live in apartments, travelling from one watering place to another. Their one trouble was the nervous weakness of the son Fred. They were now on their way to Birchespool, where they hoped that he might get some good from the bracing air. I was able to recommend vegetarianism, which I have found to act like a charm in such cases. We had quite a spirited conversation, and I think that we were sorry on both sides when we came to the junction where they had to change. Mrs. La Force gave me her card, and I promised to call if ever I should be in Birchespool.

However, all this must be stupid enough to you. You know my little ways by this time, and you don’t expect me to keep on the main line of my story. However, I am back on the rails now, and I shall try to remain there.

Well, it was nearly six o’clock, and evening was just creeping in when we drew up in Bradfield Station. The first thing I saw when I looked out of the window was Cullingworth, exactly the same as ever, striding in his jerky way down the platform, his coat flying open, his chin thrust forward (he is the most under-hung man I have ever seen), and his great teeth all gleaming, like a good-natured blood-hound. He roared with delight when he saw me, wrung my hand, and slapped me enthusiastically upon the shoulder.

“My dear chap!” said he. “We’ll clear this town out. I tell you, Munro, we won’t leave a doctor in it. It’s all they can do now to get butter to their bread; and when we get to work together they’ll have to eat it dry. Listen to me, my boy! There are a hundred and twenty thousand folk in this town, all shrieking for advice, and there isn’t a doctor who knows a rhubarb pill from a calculus. Man, we only have to gather them in. I stand and take the money until my arm aches.”

“But how is it?” I asked, as we pushed our way through the crowd, “are there so few other doctors?”

“Few!” he roared. “By Crums, the streets are blocked with them. You couldn’t fall out of a window in this town without killing a doctor. But of all the —— well, there, you’ll see them for yourself. You walked to my house at Avonmouth, Munro. I don’t let my friends walk to my house at Bradfield — eh, what?”

A well-appointed carriage with two fine black horses was drawn up at the station entrance. The smart coachman touched his hat as Cullingworth opened the door.

“Which of the houses, sir?” he asked.

Cullingworth’s eyes shot round to me to see what I thought of such a query. Between ourselves I have not the slightest doubt that he had instructed the man to ask it. He always had a fine eye for effect, but he usually erred by underrating the intelligence of those around him.

“Ah!” said he, rubbing his chin like a man in doubt. “Well, I daresay dinner will be nearly ready. Drive to the town residential.”

“Good gracious, Cullingworth!” said I as we started. “How many houses do you inhabit? It sounds as if you had bought the town.”

“Well, well,” said he, laughing, “we are driving to the house where I usually live. It suits us very well, though I have not been able to get all the rooms furnished yet. Then I have a little farm of a few hundred acres just outside the city. It is a pleasant place for the week ends, and we send the nurse and the child ——”

“My dear chap, I did not know that you had started a family!”

“Yes, it’s an infernal nuisance; but still the fact remains. We get our butter and things from the farm. Then, of course, I have my house of business in the heart of the city.”

“Consulting and waiting room, I suppose?”

He looked at me with a sort of half vexed, half amused expression. “You cannot rise to a situation, Munro,” said he. “I never met a fellow with such a stodgy imagination. I’d trust you to describe a thing when you have seen it, but never to build up an idea of it beforehand.”

“What’s the trouble now?” I asked.

“Well, I have written to you about my practice, and I’ve wired to you about it, and here you sit asking me if I work it in two rooms. I’ll have to hire the market square before I’ve finished, and then I won’t have space to wag my elbows. Can your imagination rise to a great house with people waiting in every room, jammed in as tight as they’ll fit, and two layers of them squatting in the cellar? Well, that’s my house of business on an average day. The folk come in from the county fifty miles off, and eat bread and treacle on the doorstep, so as to be first in when the housekeeper comes down. The medical officer of health made an official complaint of the over-crowding of my waiting-rooms. They wait in the stables, and sit along the racks and under the horses’ bellies. I’ll turn some of ’em on to you, my boy, and then you’ll know a little more about it.”

Well, all this puzzled me a good deal, as you can imagine, Bertie; for, making every allowance for Cullingworth’s inflated way of talking, there must be something at the back of it. I was thinking to myself that I must keep my head cool, and have a look at everything with my own eyes, when the carriage pulled up and we got out.

“This is my little place,” said Cullingworth.

It was the corner house of a line of fine buildings, and looked to me much more like a good-sized hotel than a private mansion. It had a broad sweep of steps leading to the door, and towered away up to five or six stories, with pinnacles and a flagstaff on the top. As a matter of fact, I learned that before Cullingworth took it, it had been one of the chief clubs in the town, but the committee had abandoned it on account of the heavy rent. A smart maid opened the door; and a moment later I was shaking hands with Mrs. Cullingworth, who was all kindliness and cordiality. She has, I think, forgotten the little Avonmouth business, when her husband and I fell out.

The inside of the house was even huger than I had thought from the look of the exterior. There were over thirty bedrooms, Cullingworth informed me, as he helped me to carry my portmanteau upstairs. The hall and first stair were most excellently furnished and carpetted, but it all run to nothing at the landing. My own bedroom had a little iron bed, and a small basin standing on a packing case. Cullingworth took a hammer from the mantelpiece, and began to knock in nails behind the door.

“These will do to hang your clothes on,” said he; “you don’t mind roughing it a little until we get things in order?”

“Not in the least.”

“You see,” he explained, “there’s no good my putting a forty pound suite into a bed-room, and then having to chuck it all out of the window in order to make room for a hundred-pound one. No sense in that, Munro! Eh, what! I’m going to furnish this house as no house has ever been furnished. By Crums! I’ll bring the folk from a hundred miles round just to have leave to look at it. But I must do it room by room. Come down with me and look at the dining-room. You must be hungry after your journey.”

It really was furnished in a marvellous way — nothing flash, and everything magnificent. The carpet was so rich that my feet seemed to sink into it as into deep moss. The soup was on the table, and Mrs. Cullingworth sitting down, but he kept hauling me round to look at something else.

“Go on, Hetty,” he cried over his shoulder. “I just want to show Munro this. Now, these plain dining-room chairs, what d’you think they cost each? Eh, what?”

“Five pounds,” said I at a venture.

“Exactly!” he cried, in great delight; “thirty pounds for the six. You hear, Hetty! Munro guessed the price first shot. Now, my boy, what for the pair of curtains?”

They were a magnificent pair of stamped crimson velvet, with a two-foot gilt cornice above them. I thought that I had better not imperil my newly gained reputation by guessing.

“Eighty pounds!” he roared, slapping them with the back of his hand. “Eighty pounds, Munro! What d’ye think of that? Everything that I have in this house is going to be of the best. Why, look at this waiting-maid! Did you ever see a neater one?”

He swung the girl, towards me by the arm.

“Don’t be silly, Jimmy,” said Mrs. Cullingworth mildly, while he roared with laughter, with all his fangs flashing under his bristling moustache. The girl edged closer to her mistress, looking half-frightened and half-angry.

“All right, Mary, no harm!” he cried. “Sit down, Munro, old chap. Get a bottle of champagne, Mary, and we’ll drink to more luck.”

Well, we had a very pleasant little dinner. It is never slow if Cullingworth is about. He is one of those men who make a kind of magnetic atmosphere, so that you feel exhilarated and stimulated in their presence. His mind is so nimble and his thoughts so extravagant, that your own break away from their usual grooves, and surprise you by their activity. You feel pleased at your own inventiveness and originality, when you are really like the wren when it took a lift on the eagle’s shoulder. Old Peterson, you remember, used to have a similar effect upon you in the Linlithgow days.

In the middle of dinner he plunged off, and came back with a round bag about the size of a pomegranate in his hand.

“What d’ye think this is, Munro? Eh?”

“I have no idea.”

“Our day’s take. Eh, Hetty?” He undid a string, and in an instant a pile of gold and silver rattled down upon the cloth, the coins whirling and clinking among the dishes. One rolled off the table and was retrieved by the maid from some distant corner.

“What is it, Mary? A half sovereign? Put it in your pocket. What did the lot come to, Hetty?”

“Thirty-one pound eight.”

“You see, Munro! One day’s work.” He plunged his hand into his trouser pocket and brought out a pile of sovereigns, which he balanced in his palm. “Look at that, laddie. Rather different from my Avonmouth form, eh? What?”

“It will be good news for them,” I suggested.

He was scowling at me in an instant with all his old ferocity. You cannot imagine a more savage-looking creature than Cullingworth is when his temper goes wrong. He gets a perfectly fiendish expression in his light blue eyes, and all his hair bristles up like a striking cobra. He isn’t a beauty at his best, but at his worst he’s really phenomenal. At the first danger signal his wife had ordered the maid from the room.

“What rot you do talk, Munro!” he cried. “Do you suppose I am going to cripple myself for years by letting those debts hang on to me?”

“I understood that you had promised,” said I. “Still, of course, it is no business of mine.”

“I should hope not,” he cried. “A tradesman stands to win or to lose. He allows a margin for bad debts. I would have paid it if I could. I couldn’t, and so I wiped the slate clean. No one in his senses would dream of spending all the money that I make in Bradfield upon the tradesmen of Avonmouth.”

“Suppose they come down upon you?”

“Well, we’ll see about that when they do. Meanwhile I am paying ready money for every mortal thing that comes up the door steps. They think so well of me here that I could have had the whole place furnished like a palace from the drain pipes to the flagstaff, only I determined to take each room in turn when I was ready for it. There’s nearly four hundred pounds under this one ceiling.”

There came a tap at the door, and in walked a boy in buttons.

“If you please, sir, Mr. Duncan wishes to see you.”

“Give my compliments to Mr. Duncan, and tell him he may go to the devil!”

“My dear Jimmy!” cried Mrs. Cullingworth.

“Tell him I am at dinner; and if all the kings in Europe were waiting in the hall with their crowns in their hands I wouldn’t cross that door mat to see them.”

The boy vanished, but was back in an instant.

“Please, sir, he won’t go.”

“Won’t go! What d’you mean?” Cullingworth sat with his mouth open and his knife and fork sticking up. “What d’you mean, you brat? What are you boggling about?”

“It’s his bill, sir,” said the frightened boy.

Cullingworth’s face grew dusky, and the veins began to swell on his forehead.

“His bill, eh! Look here!” He took his watch out and laid it on the table. “It’s two minutes to eight. At eight I’m coming out, and if I find him there I’ll strew the street with him. Tell him I’ll shred him over the parish. He has two minutes to save his life in, and one of them is nearly gone.”

The boy bolted from the room, and in an instant afterwards we heard the bang of the front door, with a clatter of steps down the stairs. Cullingworth lay back in his chair and roared until the tears shone on his eyelashes, while his wife quivered all over with sympathetic merriment.

“I’ll drive him mad,” Cullingworth sobbed at last. “He’s a nervous, chicken-livered kind of man; and when I look at him he turns the colour of putty. If I pass his shop I usually just drop in and stand and look at him. I never speak, but just look. It paralyses him. Sometimes the shop is full of people; but it is just the same.”

“Who is he, then?” I asked.

“He’s my corn merchant. I was saying that I paid my tradesmen as I go, but he is the only exception. He has done me once or twice, you see; and so I try to take it out of him. By the way, you might send him down twenty pounds tomorrow, Hetty. It’s time for an instalment.”

What a gossip you will think me, Bertie? But when I begin, my memory brings everything back so clearly, and I write on and on almost unconsciously. Besides, this fellow is such a mixture of qualities, that I could never give you any idea of him by myself; and so I just try to repeat to you what he says, and what he does, so that you may build up your own picture of the man. I know that he has always interested you, and that he does so more now than ever since our fates have drawn us together again.

After dinner, we went into the back room, which was the most extraordinary contrast to the front one, having only a plain deal table, and half-a-dozen kitchen chairs scattered about on a linoleum floor. At one end was an electric battery and a big magnet. At the other, a packing case with several pistols and a litter of cartridges upon it. A rook rifle was leaning tip against it, and looking round I saw that the walls were all pocked with bullet marks.

“What’s this, then?” I asked, rolling my eyes round.

“Hetty, what’s this?” he asked, with his pipe in his hand and his head cocked sideways.

“Naval supremacy and the command of the seas,” said she, like a child repeating a lesson.

“That’s it,” he shouted, stabbing at me with the amber. “Naval supremacy and command of the seas. It’s all here right under your nose. I tell you, Munro, I could go to Switzerland tomorrow, and I could say to them —‘Look here, you haven’t got a seaboard and you haven’t got a port; but just find me a ship, and hoist your flag on it, and I’ll give you every ocean under heaven.’ I’d sweep the seas until there wasn’t a match-box floating on them. Or I could make them over to a limited company, and join the board after allotment. I hold the salt water in the cup of this hand, every drop of it.”

His wife put her hands on his shoulder with admiration in her eyes. I turned to knock out my pipe, and grinned over the grate.

“Oh, you may grin,” said he. (He was wonderfully quick at spotting what you were doing.) “You’ll grin a little wider when you see the dividends coming in. What’s the value of that magnet?”

“A pound?”

“A million pounds. Not a penny under. And dirt cheap to the nation that buys it. I shall let it go at that, though I could make ten times as much if I held on. I shall take it up to the Secretary of the Navy in a week or two; and if he seems to be a civil deserving sort of person I shall do business with him. It’s not every day, Munro, that a man comes into his office with the Atlantic under one arm and the Pacific under the other. Eh, what?”

I knew it would make him savage, but I lay back in my chair and laughed until I was tired. His wife looked at me reproachfully; but he, after a moment of blackness, burst out laughing also, stamping up and down the room and waving his arms.

“Of course it seems absurd to you,” he cried. “Well, I daresay it would to me if any other fellow had worked it out. But you may take my word for it that it’s all right. Hetty here will answer for it. Won’t you, Hetty?”

“It’s splendid, my dear.”

“Now I’ll show you, Munro; what an unbelieving Jew you are, trying to look interested, and giggling at the back of your throat! In the first place, I have discovered a method — which I won’t tell you — of increasing the attractive power of a magnet a hundred-fold. Have you grasped that?”

“Yes.”

“Very good. You are also aware, I presume, that modern projectiles are either made of or tipped with steel. It may possibly have come to your ears that magnets attract steel. Permit me now to show you a small experiment.” He bent over his apparatus, and I suddenly heard the snapping of electricity. “This,” he continued going across to the packing case, “is a saloon pistol, and will be exhibited in the museums of the next century as being the weapon with which the new era was inaugurated. Into the breech I place a Boxer cartridge, specialty provided for experimental purposes with a steel bullet. I aim point blank at the dab of red sealing wax upon the wall, which is four inches above the magnet. I am an absolutely dead shot. I fire. You will now advance, and satisfy yourself that the bullet is flattened upon the end of the magnet, after which you will apologise to me for that grin.”

I looked, and it certainly was as he had said.

“I’ll tell you what I would do,” he cried. “I am prepared to put that magnet in Hetty’s bonnet, and to let you fire six shots straight at her face. How’s that for a test? You wouldn’t mind, Hetty? Eh, what!”

“I don’t think she would have objected, but I hastened to disclaim any share in such an experiment.

“Of course, you see that the whole thing is to scale. My warship of the future carries at her prow and stern a magnet which shall be as much larger than that as the big shell will be larger than this tiny bullet. Or I might have a separate raft, possibly, to carry my apparatus. My ship goes into action. What happens then, Munro? Eh, what! Every shot fired at her goes smack on to the magnet. There’s a reservoir below into which they drop when the electric circuit is broken. After every action they are sold by auction for old metal, and the result divided as prize money among the crew. But think of it, man! I tell you it is an absolute impossibility for a shot to strike any ship which is provided with my apparatus. And then look at the cheapness. You don’t want armour. You want nothing. Any ship that floats becomes invulnerable with one of these. The war ship of the future will cost anything from seven pound ten. You’re grinning again; but if you give me a magnet and a Brixton trawler with a seven-pounder gun I’ll show sport to the finest battle-ship afloat.”

“Well, there must be some flaw about this,” I suggested. “If your magnet is so strong as all that, you would have your own broadside boomeranging back upon you.”

“Not a bit of it! There’s a big difference between a shot flying away from you with all its muzzle velocity, and another one which is coming towards you and only needs a slight deflection to strike the magnet. Besides, by breaking the circuit I can take off the influence when I am firing my own broadside. Then I connect, and instantly become invulnerable.”

“And your nails and screws?”

“The warship of the future will be bolted together by wood.”

Well, he would talk of nothing else the whole evening but of this wonderful invention of his. Perhaps there is nothing in it — probably there is not; and yet it illustrates the many-sided nature of the man, that he should not say one word about his phenomenal success here — of which I am naturally most anxious to hear — not a word either upon the important subject of our partnership, but will think and talk of nothing but this extraordinary naval idea. In a week he will have tossed it aside in all probability, and be immersed in some plan for reuniting the Jews and settling them in Madagascar. Yet from all he has said, and all I have seen, there can be no doubt that he has in some inexplicable way made a tremendous hit, and tomorrow I shall let you know all about it. Come what may, I am delighted that I came, for things promise to be interesting. Regard this not as the end of a letter, but of a paragraph. You shall have the conclusion tomorrow, or on Thursday at the latest. Goodbye, and my remembrance to Lawrence if you see him. How’s your friend from Yale?

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