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 to-morrow, 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 to-morrow, 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 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?”
“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 to-morrow 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 to-morrow, or on Thursday at the latest. Goodbye, and my remembrance to Lawrence if you see him. How’s your friend from Yale?