The Jovial Ghosts
The Misadventures of Topper
FOR some minutes now Scollops had been gazing searchingly at Mr. Topper. And Mr. Topper was troubled. Not definitely troubled, but vaguely so, which to some persons is the most troublesome form of trouble. Mr. Topper was one of such persons. In fact he was highly representative of the type. So free from trouble had Topper's days been that gradually he had come to regard with suspicion all creatures not likewise unencumbered. An earthquake, an eruption or tidal wave would mildly move Cosmo Topper, arouse him to the extent of a dollar donation which would later be deducted from his income tax; whereas a newspaper story dealing with bankruptcy, crimes of violence or moral looseness would cause him speedily to avert his eyes to less disturbing topics. Mr. Topper could excuse nature and the Republican Party, but not man. He was an institutional sort of animal, but not morbid. Not apparently. So completely and successfully had he inhibited himself that he veritably believed he was the freest person in the world. But Mr. Topper could not be troubled. His mental process ran safely, smoothly, and on the dot along well signalled tracks; and his physical activities, such as they were, obeyed without question an inelastic schedule of suburban domesticity. He resented being troubled. At least he thought he did. That was Mr. Topper's trouble, but at present he failed to realise it.
He experienced now something of the same resentment that came to him upon being delayed in the tunnel on his way home from the city. Things were going on round him in the tunnel, dreadful things, perhaps, but he did not know what they were. He sat in a blaze of light in the midst of clanking darkness. Surrounded by familiar things he felt stuffy and uncomfortable. Even his newspaper lost its wonted stability. Yes, it was a decidedly objectionable feeling that Mr. Topper had to-night as he gave himself to the solicitous embrace of his arm chair and followed with a dull gaze the rug's interminable border design— a Doric motif, clean-cut and geometrically accurate. Once this design had appealed to his abiding sense of order. To-night he hardly saw it, although without his knowledge it was wearying his eyes, and had been doing so for several months.
In Scollops' eyes there was an expression difficult to fathom. Mr. Topper held the opinion that the expression was uncomfortably insinuating, making him in some sly way an accessory before the fact. But hang it all, what was the meaning of Scollops' look? The cat had been fed. He had seen to that himself as he had seen to it ever since he had adventurously brought her home from Wilson's, the grocer's, one evening four years ago. Four years. As long as that in this house; and once it had seemed so new. Now it was an old house, an uninteresting house. Perhaps he was old, too, and equally uninteresting. Mr. Topper felt that he was, and for the first time in his life permitted himself to wonder about such things.
His intellectual debauch was rudely shattered by Scollops. The cat yawned and tentatively thrust her nails into her benefactor's thigh. It was rather a plump thigh. Long years of sedentary work had served to despoil it of its youthful charm. It was a tight thigh and a fleshy one, yet it still reacted to pain. To such an extent, in fact, that Mr. Topper's sensation of trouble instantly gave way to one of mild reproach as he dropped Scollops softly thudding to the floor.
This faint discord in the domestic tranquillity caused Mrs. Cosmo Topper to look up from her needlework. Mr. Topper, glancing across the table, met his wife's eyes. It was just for a moment, then he looked quickly away, but why, he did not know.
"She yawned," he remarked by way of explanation. "Yawned and scratched."
"I know it," apologised Mrs. Topper, mistaking his words for a direct accusation. "I've been doing it all evening. It must have been the veal."
Topper watched his wife remove her sewing-glasses and place them in their case. With an absorbed gaze he followed her movements as she folded her sewing and wrapped it in a piece of linen, which she then deposited in a basket. At this point his expression became almost desperate, then, hopeless. No, there was going to be no change in the nightly routine—glasses, case, linen, basket. If she would only reverse the procedure, or for once forget her glasses, that would be something. Meantime Mrs. Topper, unconscious of tragedy, rose from her chair, came round to where her husband was sitting, and brushed his forehead with her lips. Then, referring once more in a pained voice to the haunting qualities of veal, she left the room.
Mr. Topper listened to her firm step upon the stairs. A certain squeaking of boards apprised him of the fact that she had achieved the landing. For a moment he thought idly about veal in relation to his wife. Then he did an unusual thing. Instead of knocking out his pipe and locking in the cat whose vagrant nature had caused him some rather trying experiences in the past, he gently retrieved that animal from the floor and fell to studying an old atlas which he had plucked from an obscure shelf.
"It made me sleepless, too," murmured Mrs. Topper an hour later as her husband settled down beside her.
And that night Mr. Topper dreamed of eating curried veal in Calcutta. He was surrounded by many maidens, all of whom partook amply of veal, and none of whom complained. It was delicious. He gorged himself.