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The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith


Mr. Topper Pursues the Sun

THE street down which Mr. Topper strolled was a nice street. No one needed to feel ashamed of it. No one did. And the people who lived on this street had nice homes; nice, neat homes with well-groomed lawns, well-shingled roofs and well-stocked larders. The style of architecture showed a sincere desire to impress the eye favourably. The effort had been based more on hope than on inspiration. The houses could have been—and frequently were—termed "homey," "quaint," and "comfortable," but after these terms had been exhausted little remained to be said save, perhaps, "sweet."

Mr. Topper and his neighbours were quietly proud of this street, and had borne their assessments as a tolerant father bears the extras of an extravagant son at college. One could bring one's friends from the city to this street and let it speak for itself, which one seldom did. Sewerage, real estate and the cost of building were subjects far too fascinating to be left to the imagination. So the visitors from the city heard all about these things, and were not amused.

Being on a slightly higher elevation than the rest of the town, the street was happily called "Glendale Road." It is rather terrifying to think that the real estate promoter responsible for this name is perhaps still unhung and busily engaged in giving equally stultifying names to other nice little streets in other nice little towns situated in other nice little localities throughout the United States.

"You know that swamp?" he is, perhaps, saying to his wife at this very moment as he lights his cigar.

"Which one, my dear?" she asks. "You've bought so many swamps."

"And sold 'em, too," he replies with a boyish chuckle. "But the one we drove by last week. I pointed it out to you. It was where they found the body of—"

"Oh, yes," his wife exclaims, "the rag picker's wife! They had to vacate their shack, didn't they?"

"Well, that doesn't matter," replies her husband rather quickly. "I've decided to run a drive through it. What do you think would be a good name?"

Deep silence for several minutes. Her husband watches her anxiously. She reads a lot of books. Good things, books.

"Mayblossom Drive," she murmurs at last, with a dreamy look in her eyes. "That would be charming. Let's call it that."

Business of writing name down on back of soiled envelope. Husband departs for development in car and another street has come into being.

Nevertheless Glendale Road was really a nice street. It was wide and well paved. There were trees on it at orderly intervals. And, now that June was here, there were leaves on the branches of the trees and there were birds among the leaves. For some reason Mr. Topper's mind was not occupied to-day with thoughts of sewers, real estate or building costs. Community pride was absent from his mood. He heard the birds chirping and listened to them intently. How many of them there must be and what a great to-do they were making. Little birds were always so excited. He had held a sparrow in his hand once and felt its heart beat. Somehow it had made him feel like crying. The little thing had been so excited, so bent on living. Life to the little sparrow had seemed so necessary and important. Topper had released it immediately. How busily it had flown away. Well, these chaps up in the tree were having a good time just the same. They never needed a change. They could come and go as they pleased. A nest here and a nest there. A family hatched and a family fledged. Fresh branches in new lands. Adventurous flights in pursuit of the sun. Not a bad life, that. Be a bird and see the world.

Topper smiled and stopped in front of a public garage. He was now on a side street of the town proper, but Mr. Topper was not altogether sure as to how he had got there. He had been flying in pursuit of the sun, and on the following day, after church, two ladies protested to Mrs. Topper that he had looked right through them. What had they done to be so dreadfully treated, and what had come over her husband, who was always so polite to the ladies?

"Sparrows," said Mr. Topper at this point, and walked away, leaving his wife to explain as best she could the meaning of his remark.

Seeing Mr. Topper smiling at him, the owner of the garage rested from his labours and called out an enthusiastic greeting.

"Isn't it lovely?" he asked, pointing to the machine on which he had been working.

Impressed by the man's earnestness, Mr. Topper approached the car and surveyed it with the vague gaze of an amateur.

"Really lovely," he said, looking hopefully at the man. "A really lovely car, Mark."

Mark beamed.

"It's the coyest little car in the town," he declared, "and it's carried more than gasoline in its time, though it is only this year's model."

"Bootlegging?" asked Mr. Topper, deciding, now that he came to consider it, the car did have rather vicious lines. Too much nickel and a trifle too low to the ground.

"No, victims," said Mark. "There was a bottle in every flap when they found it."

"Then did the car manage to get lost?" Mr. Topper asked with growing interest.

"Wrecked," replied Mark briefly. "Head on to a tree. I've practically rebuilt it, but the motor's good as new."

"It's had rather a sad life for such a young car," remarked Topper. "Whose is it?"

"Mine," replied Mark with pride. "But it did belong to George and Marion Kerby. You remember. Both killed three months back. The estate owed me money so I took the car in settlement."

Mr. Topper now looked at the automobile with unfeigned interest. Surely he remembered George and Marion Kerby, the fastest young couple in town. At least, they had been. People had always predicted that they would come to some such end. Kerby had never worked. No sedentary work for him. Rich young devil. And he and his wife had been laid to rest to the tune of "I told you so." Kerby's wife, a slim girl, good-looking, quick in her actions, a mocking sort of a creature. Then, like brushing against a cobweb on a dark woodland path, Mr. Topper's thoughts were suddenly arrested by little dinging threads of memory. Marion Kerby's eyes? Ah, yes, he remembered them. The Kerbys had not belonged to his set, the solid, substantial, sedentary set, but had gathered round them, from all parts of the country, a group of irresponsible spirits, who would suddenly appear in a swarm of motors, riot around the town and countryside for a few days, and then as suddenly disappear in a cloud of dust and a chorus of brazen horns. No one had really known the Kerbys, that is, no respectable, accredited member of the community. But Topper had seen them often enough as they darted through the streets of the town, and once he had met Marion Kerby at the dedication of the new twenty-thousand-dollar-fire-house.

"Comic operas cost more and are less amusing," she had remarked, with a smile, then asked in a serious voice: "Do all white duck trousers have to look so self-conscious?"

Mr. Topper, being a charter member of the organisation, had loyally donned his outfit and joined the ranks of his fellow fire-fighters. Now, at the question, he looked down at his ducks and blushed. Marion Kerby mingled with the crowd, but she left behind her the seeds of rebellion in Mr. Topper's mind. He had never felt in sympathy with white duck trousers, and now he actually hated them. They did look self-conscious, but it showed poor community spirit on Marion Kerby's part to ridicule the uniform. What would a fire company do without white duck trousers? Evidently she was one of those modern young women who had no respect for tradition. Furthermore, nice women did not talk about trousers on such a slight acquaintance.

A few days after this he had encountered Marion Kerby on the morning train. She had nodded to him and smiled, and somehow her smile had seemed to convey the impression that they shared between them an unholy secret of a most delicious nature. Marion Kerby's smile had caused Mr. Topper to feel much less married. He had puzzled all the way in that morning about her eyes. He had found himself unable to place them. They were never quite the same. Thoughts danced behind them like fountains in the sun, hiding their liquid depth in a burst of dazzling spray.

And now as Mr. Topper stood in the glittering presence of the car in which Marion Kerby and her husband had met their death, he remembered her eyes and felt dismayed that their light had been snuffed from the world. A June heaviness settled down on Mr. Topper and he became conscious of his stomach. It was too large. Indecent. Yes, he was certainly in need of a change.

Mark's monologue swam in on his ears.

"They were a wild pair, Mr. Topper," the man was saying, "but nice people at that. The nicest couple I ever knew. One minute they'd be fighting with each other like a pair of wildcats and the next they'd be getting along like two tramps. Why, the way they went on would make you think of a couple of kids. They were always arguing about who was the best driver and often they'd ask me to decide. There'd be tears in their eyes, they were so in earnest. You'd have thought it was a matter of life and death with them."

"That's about how it was, Mark," said Mr. Topper thoughtfully. "A matter of life and death. A gay life and a quick death."

"What's the odds," replied Mark, with a shrug. "They liked it that way and they got what they wanted."

"I've a feeling they got just a trifle more than they wanted," said Mr. Topper. "They didn't look like a pair that were extremely anxious to die. They were too crammed with life."

"But that's the way it goes," continued Mark, waxing philosophic. "There are lots of people in town I'd rather have seen get in trouble with a tree."

This remark made Mr. Topper feel a little uneasy. He realised that he had never enriched Mark's coffers with the purchase of gasoline or automobile parts. To Mark he was perfectly useless, a fit subject for a tree.

"They had good stuff," Mark went on reminiscently, "and they were generous with it, too. I always had a drink whenever they came in the place. We used to have regular little parties in my office over there."

Mr. Topper walked deliberately to Mark's small office and peered through the door. In his mind's eye he could see Marion Kerby seated at the desk. He had a remarkably vivid picture of her. It was almost as if he had been present at the parties himself. There she sat, her slim ankles crossed, her mad eyes dancing beneath the brim of a smart little hat, and her lips parted in a sarcastic smile. In one hand was a glass which she was holding on high and in the other a cigarette. "Truly an unedifying sight," thought Mr. Topper, and yet he was fascinated by it. He dwelt on the delicate lines of her face, the small impertinent chin and the fine lips curved in a roving, debonair smile. Then he returned to her eyes and became lost in contemplation.

"They were mad," he mused to himself. "They could laugh the devil down."

Fearing that that was what they were probably doing at the very moment, Mr. Topper turned away from the door and looked at Mark, who was in the act of hanging a "For Sale" sign over the radiator cap of the automobile. The deed done, Mark stepped back and surveyed his handiwork ecstatically, head on one side and hands on his hips. "Here," thought Mr. Topper, "is a master craftsman, one who loves his work for its own sake."

"So you're going to sell it," he said, walking over to the bewitched garage man.

"Certainly," replied Mark. "And cheap too. Couldn't get anyone to believe she's sound. But she is, every nut and bolt in her. The Kerbys themselves wouldn't know the difference except that she's quieter now. They always kept the old car rattling."

"Well, they rattled their toy once too often," remarked Mr. Topper, looking moodily out at the street. "I hope the next owner will have better luck."

"Lightning never strikes . . ."

"Twice in the same place," interrupted Mr. Topper. "I know, Mark, but an automobile can, and if it isn't the same place it's some place equally unyielding."

With a nod to Mark and a lingering look at the automobile, Mr. Topper left the garage and walked slowly down the street to the main thoroughfare of the town, where he stopped and looked with unseeing eyes into a butcher's window. Behind him a steady trail of automobiles passed by. He was dimly aware of their swift, hissing tyres whirling evenly over the smooth road. They were all going somewhere, he thought to himself, without troubling to look around, all out for a good time—a change. Some of them were going to new places, no doubt, places miles and miles away, possibly as far off as the coast. People did such things, camping at night by the roadside or putting up at inns.

Presently he became aware of the fact that he was looking a leg of lamb full in the face. There the thing was, hardly a foot from his nose. Back at home its mate was probably sputtering in the oven by this time. And Mrs. Topper was twittering about preparing new fields for indigestion while the cook struggled to swallow her spleen. It was appalling. Mr. Topper considered the lamb with smouldering eyes, but the lamb held its ground, and for a moment they confronted each other like two antagonists. Then Mr. Topper, at last outfaced by his less sensitive opponent, whirled about and walked back to the garage, this time with purpose in his step. But as he approached the garage he became troubled in his mind, and this trouble made him shuffle slightly in his gait. He had no doubt as to the ultimate outcome of his visit, but how to get it over with was what dismayed him, forcing him to drift about uneasily in front of the garage like a criminal released from the gates of durance. The sight of the "For Sale" sign on the glittering object of his quest stimulated him to action. He lifted his head and walked casually up to the car. Mark, emerging from the shadows like a proud but jealous god, greeted Mr. Topper with a slight show of surprise.

"How does the thing start?" asked Topper, without any preliminaries.

"How?" repeated Mark dumbly.

"The automobile," said Topper. "How do you start the damn thing?"

"Oh!" exclaimed Mark, now sparklingly alive to the situation. "Why, it starts like any other automobile. Put your foot on it and off she goes."

"Interesting if true," thought Mr. Topper. Nevertheless he regarded the starter with a contemplative eye.

"Is it hard to learn how to work them?" he continued. "I mean for a person like myself?"

"Why, Mr. Topper," Mark admonished, "there are bigger boobs than you messing up the roads everywhere."

"You shock me," remarked Topper, "but don't let's dwell on it. Now what is this thing for?"

"That's for the ventilator. It lets in the air."

"On what?"

"On your feet."

"An unpleasant inference," murmured Mr, Topper, "but I dare say the thing has its advantages. And this?" he added aloud.

"That lights your cigars."

Mr. Topper produced a cigar. Mark spoke the truth.

"A nice thing," said Mr. Topper, a little more at ease now that his lungs were refining smoke. "A handy thing, that. Very nice. Clever, too, isn't it?

Mark, becoming more than serious, agreed that it was.

"Yes, yes," continued Topper, sliding into the front seat of the automobile as if he were not thinking of what he was doing. "A convenient little gadget. Adds to the pleasure of driving. Now come here, Mark, and show me what you do to make the old car go, but first take that invitation off the front of the car. Some woman might come along and buy me. How about that, Mark?"

"Ha! Ha!" laughed Mark, whose false mirth was arrested by a sudden slap on the back.

"Take the damn sign off, Mark," commanded Topper, a new light gleaming in his eyes.

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