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.