New Zephyria
by Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"

-  Auksford  -

Part III: Dr Pimple's Miracle Cure

Chapter 9: Curious behaviour of a family doctor

Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004

"Ah, come in, will you, Pimple? Sit down," groaned the careworn King.

"Your Majesty looks tired," the doctor observed.

"I'm worn out," said the King. "Beastly headache, you see. Been goin' on for weeks and weeks."

Dr Pimple felt the Royal pulse, listened to the Royal heart, measured the Royal blood pressure, and examined the pupils of the Royal eyes.

"Your Majesty appears to be in excellent physical condition," he murmured, closing up his little brown bag, "but a chronic headache is rather a worrying symptom. When exactly did it start?"

"Just after Bertie's weddin'," replied the King. "I was hopin' for a bit of peace and quiet to sort out m' stamp collection and catch up on m' memoirs - you didn't know I was writin' m' memoirs, did you, Pimple? Jolly interestin' they are too, at least they would be if ever I could get beyond chapter 5. I've just got to the bit where I tied the Lord Chamberlain's shoe-laces together, and he fell flat on his face in front of the whole court. Lord, I got a whoppin' for that! - No, I'm wrong there. M' dear old Dad took me into his study, this very room, took up his walkin' stick, shouted Arthur, you little wretch, don't you dare do a thing like that again, winked at me, and walloped that chair you're sittin' on. Then he called out, Brave little fellow, took your medicine like a man, and gave me a florin. Couldn't stand the Lord Chamberlain, you see, what? I must have been about five at the time. What larks we had!

"But I can't get anything written down," he continued, returning to his old, desperate misery. "I can't concentrate, and the more I try, the more m' head aches. So I said to m'self, Arthur, old bean, I said, you've really got to get some help, and who's the only person in the Kingdom who can come to the rescue? Why, that fella Pimple, of course!"

"That's you," he added by way of explanation.

"Most gratifying," murmured Dr Pimple, "but I suspect that in a case like this I shall have to refer Your Majesty to the hospital. I can find no reason for Your Majesty's headache. I would suggest a specialist in brain problems."

"Don't be ridiculous, man!" roared the King. "Are you suggestin' I'm potty?" What d'ye mean ye can't find any reason for m' headache? Haven't I just told you I've had it ever since m' son's weddin'? Can't you hear the bally row they're makin'?"

"Ah," said Dr Pimple. "You mean the people in the street."

"Of course I mean the people in the dashed street!" growled the King. "They haven't stopped fightin' and quarrellin' since the weddin'. Simpkin says it started with some squabble about which side of the street had the best decorations, and it's been goin' on ever since. Grrrrrgh! There goes that beastly woman again!"

Rising above the confused hubbub of quarrelsome shouting came the harsh, metallic screech of an ill-tempered fishwife.

"I wish someone would take her out to sea and drown her," groaned the unhappy monarch, clamping his hands over his ears.

"I can see it's no use prescribing aspirin," bellowed Dr Pimple, "but why don't you just move to one of the rooms on the other side of the palace?"

King Arthur removed his hands from his ears and turned upon the doctor a pair of eyes as lacking in sparkle as two boiled gooseberries.

"There's no need to shout," he groaned. "I can hear everything everybody says even with m' hands pressed over m' ears. M' blasted hearin's perfect. The slightest sound goes right through me, and I don't want to move out of m' study. It's been m'study since I first became King, and it was m' father's before me. It's m' favourite room, and it catches the sun. If I moved to the other side of the Palace I'd be too near Parliament, and the sound of all those politicians brayin' at each other would be every bit as bad as this lot. Besides, I can hear that woman in every room. I lie awake at night just dreadin' to hear her voice. No, Pimple, you've got to put a stop to it. I don't care how you do it. Ship the whole lot off to Borania to work in the salt mines if you like. Just stop the noise, that's all I ask."

Dr Pimple went over to the window and stood looking out for a while.

"I wonder ..." he murmured. "Yes, I wonder ..."

He turned to the King. "I wonder," he said, "If Your Majesty would consent to lend me those two round white stones from your garden."

"Anythin'," said the King. "Take anythin' you like. Just stop the noise."

* * * * *

The next day Dr Pimple's car drew up in the High Street below the Palace. The doctor got out, pulled his collar up round his ears, glanced furtively up and down the street, then scuttled into an ironmonger's shop.

"I wonder what he's up to," said the butcher to his wife. "I think I'll just go over and buy a few screws to fix that sign of ours."

The baker's wife, the bookseller and a window-cleaner drifted into the shop too.

Dr Pimple was looking at a cooking pot. "No, that's much too small," he said sadly.

"It's the biggest in the shop," said the ironmonger's wife.

"Oh dear," said Dr Pimple. "Perhaps I'd better go over to the other side of the street. You see, what I really want ..." - here he glanced furtively round and lowered his voice to a secretive whisper which somehow seemed to penetrate right through the shop - "... is an old-fashioned cauldron, the sort of thing witches used."

"Oh, I don't think we've got anything like that," said the ironmonger's wife in a rather shocked voice.

"I'll try over the road," gabbled Dr Pimple and shot out of the shop.

* * * * *

"What does he want with a witch's cauldron?" enquired the butcher. The ironmonger and his wife shrugged their shoulders. The baker's wife peered out of the window, and the bookseller, after a moment's hesitation, hurried out of the shop and sauntered, with well-feigned casualness, after Dr Pimple.

The doctor had stopped outside a fishmonger's shop and was pretending to be fascinated by the display in its window. The bookseller stopped a few yards away as if to admire a window full of boots and shoes - but he kept his eye firmly fixed on Dr Pimple.

The doctor was glancing rapidly round and looking anxiously at the people passing in the street. The bookseller thought he looked like a man with a guilty secret. Suddenly, as if seizing a chance, Dr Pimple shot across the road and into the ironmonger's on the other side. The bookseller darted after him, and so did the butcher and the baker's wife.

"What do you suppose they're all up to?" muttered the fishmonger. "Mind the shop for a minute, will you, Tommy? I'm just off for a stroll across the road."

He met the herbalist from his own side and the chemist from the other side at the door of the ironmonger's. They ignored each other and moved in different directions as soon as they got inside the shop.

"Haven't you got anything bigger?" said Dr Pimple in a low but strangely penetrating voice. "What I really need is ..." - here his voice sank to a secretive whisper, but the listeners could hear every word - "... a cauldron like witches used to use."

"A witch's cauldron?" said the second ironmonger. "No, no, Doctor, you won't find such a thing in the whole of the town. I know every ironmonger this side of the Black Stump, and I tell you that none of us would ever stock such a thing - not even that stupid pig on the other side of the street."

"Who are you calling a stupid pig?" shouted the first ironmonger, who had slipped in unnoticed. "I'll have the law on you, Willy Hargreaves! That's defamation of character, that is! Slander!"

"Yeah, slander on the pigs maybe!" yelled the second ironmonger.

Dr Pimple hunched his shoulders, pulled his hat down low, turned up his collar and slunk out of the shop with an expression of furtive cunning on his face. Glancing from side to side as he went he scurried towards the third ironmonger's at the bottom of the street. The butcher, the baker's wife, the fishmonger, the herbalist, the chemist and a dozen or so other people hurried after him, leaving the two ironmongers to continue their argument alone.

Others joined the crowd, asking what was happening. Suddenly Dr Pimple stopped. The crowd stopped. He went on again and they pressed forward. He stopped and turned. Some of the crowd stopped. Others were too late and bumped into those in front. Dr Pimple crossed the street. The crowd followed.

"There's too many of us," grumbled the butcher.

"I'm sure he's seen us," moaned the baker's wife.

"We should divide in two, some on each side of the street," said the bookseller, "then it wouldn't look so obvious."

Dr Pimple turned again. He crossed the street diagonally, heading back the way he had come. The crowd watched him pass, then followed him on the opposite side. He was walking jauntily, as if on a country ramble, looking round at the shops and houses. He might even have been whistling.

"He's up to something," said the chemist to the herbalist.

The doctor went back to his car. He got in and started the engine. He drove off along the street. The crowd watched him go.

Suddenly, with a squeal of brakes, he stopped outside the third ironmonger's, leaped from his car and dashed inside. The crowd tore back along the street and surged into the shop.

"What I really want," Dr Pimple was saying in his penetrating whisper, "is a big cauldron like witches used to use."

"I haven't seen one of those for many a year," said the third ironmonger, "and I don't know of anyone that would stock them. I'm sure they're not made any more. My old grandma had one that she used for boiling up the sheets. She used to say it was a witch's cauldron, but that was just to impress the little ones."

"Ah!" cried Dr Pimple excitedly. "That gives me an idea. A copper washing boiler! Surely someone must still have one!"

"I thought you wanted a witch's cauldron," said the butcher.

"No, no," replied Dr Pimple, "just any large vat suitable for boiling ... well, for boiling ... something."

"For boiling what?" the herbalist demanded.

Dr Pimple glanced hurriedly around with an air of extreme furtiveness.

"Sh!" he said, and tapped the side of his nose meaningfully.

"Close the door," he added. Then he beckoned them to come closer and muttered, "It's a secret. Don't let anyone else know. Just us, eh? Magic, you see? Yes, magic."

"What kind of magic?" asked the third ironmonger suspiciously.

Oh, good magic, good magic," said the doctor, "and if it works I suppose there's no harm in your knowing. After all, I can make as much as I want - as much as we all want - and it won't cost a penny."

"As much what?"

"What won't cost a penny?"

"What's he talking about?"

Everyone started talking at once.

"Hush! Hush!" implored Dr Pimple. "I don't know whether it'll work, and if they find out they'll all want some. I suppose there'll be plenty for everyone, but you never know."

"Plenty of what?" said the third ironmonger. "Come on, Doctor. You'll have to tell us plainly. What is it that you're up to? What is this magic of yours?"

"Aha!" said the doctor, with a tremendous wink and a leer of self-satisfaction. "I'll tell you then, if you really want to know - it's stone soup!"

"Stone soup?!" exclaimed the butcher. "What on earth is stone soup? I've heard of beef soup and oxtail soup ..."

"... and chicken soup ..." cried the poulterer.

"and leek and potato soup, pea soup and mixed vegetable soup ..." added the greengrocer.

"... and mulligatawny, brown windsor and cold consommé ..." put in the restaurant owner.

"... but never stone soup!" finished the butcher.

"Ah," said Dr Pimple. "Magic, you see. Reward for helping with Prince Egbert's marriage. Royal family descended from Sea King's daughter, Moana. All sorts of secrets. Shouldn't be telling you really. Probably get head chopped off, but might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Listen!"

He beckoned them closer and began to speak in his penetrating whisper. "Two magic stones, that's what the King gave me. For making stone soup. Just boil 'em in water, add a bit of seasoning and thickening, and they make a most wonderful soup. As much as you like. Use 'em again and again."

"What flavour?" said the butcher suspiciously.

"Any flavour. Whatever you like. Just wish," said the doctor. "Of course, being a man of science, I don't really believe it. I thought I'd try it as an experiment. I don't suppose there's anything in it really. You don't want to waste your time on it. Silly really ..."

As he spoke the doctor was sliding towards the door, looking, if anything, even more cunning than when he came in.

"If we don't help you," said the butcher, "where are you going to find a cauldron?"

"Oh well ... I ... perhaps I won't try it after all," muttered Dr Pimple. "I'm sure it's not really true ..."

"Stop him!" yelled the butcher as Dr Pimple pulled at the door, but there was no hope of escape that way. As soon as the door opened more people crowed into the shop, led by a thin, bony woman.

"Where's my 'usband?" said she in a voice that could be heard clearly in the Royal Palace several hundred yards away.

"Here I am, dear," quavered a puny, balding fishmonger.

"And just what do you think you're doing over this side of the street?" screeched the woman. "Who's supposed to be minding the shop, eh? Answer me that!" Sneak off with your cronies, would you? Drinking all hours of the day and night while I slave my fingers to the bone! Get yourself home at once, or I'll have something to say about it. And stop flapping your hands about when I'm talking to you. Who's that your pointing at?"

"I ... er ... it's Dr Pimple, dear ... he's got stone soup," quavered the unfortunate little man.

"STONE SOUP!" screamed the woman. "What do you mean 'stone soup', you miserable little worm?"

"He ... he can make soup out of stones," answered the fishmonger.

"MAKE SOUP OUT OF STONES?!" howled the fishwife.

"Make soup out of stones?" said the people outside.

"Make soup out of stones?" said the people at the end of the street.

"Make soup out of stones?" groaned the despairing King. "This gets worse and worse."

"Not a word of truth in it, I assure you," gabbled Dr Pimple. "He must be drunk. How could anyone make soup out of stones? I've never heard of anything so ridiculous. Good morning."

"You're not going anywhere, Doctor," said the butcher. "Truth is, Missus, Dr Pimple's been given magic stones by the King. Been handed down in the Royal Family from the time of the First Prince of New Zephyria, him that married the Sea King's daughter."

"Just boil 'em up, dear," twittered the fishmonger, "with a few gallons of water ..."

"... the more the better ..." added the butcher.

"... and they make a most delicious soup ..." continued the fishmonger.

"... and it's all absolutely free ..." said the lady from the flower shop.

"IS THIS TRUE?" bellowed the fishwife.

"Well," said Dr Pimple, edging closer to her, "just between ourselves, and I hope you won't let it go any further because I haven't really tried it yet, but it would be marvellous if it worked, wouldn't it?"

"There's an old copper boiler in the wash-house out at the back," said the third ironmonger. "We were going to pull those old outhouses down, but we never got round to it."

"Capital! Capital!" cried Dr Pimple. "Have it taken out. I'll hire a lorry and come and fetch it ..."

"Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" cried the butcher. "We'd all like to see how stone soup is made. Why don't we demolish the wash-house and set up the copper in the square. Then Dr Pimple can make the soup with everyone looking on, just to see there's no trickery."

"Yes!"

"Good idea!"

"That's the way to do it!"

"Well?" demanded the butcher. "What do you say, Dr Pimple?"

"Friends," replied the doctor, "I am ashamed. I don't know what came over me. I suppose that's what happens when people meddle with magic. I was actually going to try to keep the stone soup all to myself. How very silly! If the magic works as it should, there'll be more than enough to feed us all. Let us do as you suggest. Perhaps this lady ..." - here he indicated the fishmonger's wife - "... would make an announcement to the people outside. Then, if you gentlemen could organize the boiler and fill it with water, I'll bring the stones. - Oh, just one more thing: perhaps someone should come with me, just in case I'm tempted to drive off with them.

* * * * *

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