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The Jovial Ghosts
The Misadventures of Topper
Mrs. Topper Is Not Delighted
THE first stage of Mr. Topper's secret life dated from the Saturday on which he purchased the Kerby's ill-fated car from Mark, the ecstatic garage owner. And this stage lasted only a week, coming to a grand anti-climax on the following Saturday. But during that time Mr. Topper, a novice in secret living, was hard pressed to maintain his customary calm either at home or abroad. The fire was no longer banked in his eyes, but seemed to be smouldering through, and occasionally he found himself scrutinising his friends as if they were total strangers.
His introductory driving lesson was of an anatomical nature. The automobile was discussed to its most intimate parts, from which only the finest mechanism could have refrained from shrinking. The lesson completed, Mr. Topper abjured Mark to silence and returned to his home, where he settled his feud with the leg of lamb through the process of absorption. In other words, it became one hundred per cent. Topper and for that reason acquired merit while Topper acquired flesh.
"I knew you would like it," said Mrs. Topper as though she were addressing a sceptical cannibal who had just made a meal of a questionable victim. "I've always said you liked lamb."
Mr. Topper could not deny the truth of her words, but in spite of their truth they made him wish that he could uneat the lamb. Not knowing how to do this decently, he smiled at his wife and said, "I walked farther than I thought. Worked up an appetite."
The false smile and the black lie quelled the rebellion in his stomach. Without realising it, Topper was already far gone in sin.
On Monday morning, after exchanging pennies with a small Italian child for a stillborn edition of a New York paper, he greeted his friends with his habitual placidity. No, he had not heard the new one about Bill's furnace. He was sorry that Mrs. Thompson was having servant trouble. Too bad. Was that so? Jennings had made a killing again. Great stuff. Surely, he'd bring the Missus over first thing. Wednesday evening? Good! Good! His tulips? Doing splendidly! A whole bed of them—all blooming. No, not brewing, just smousing about. Is that so! How about your own cellar? None of that stuff, Jack! The whole town knows about you. The farmer's daughter and the tramp? Sure he'd like to hear it. Wait till they got aboard.
And off went Topper with his boon companions, all of whom he decided were perfect strangers to him.
At the office Topper treated the president with a commendable show of tolerance. Cosmo Topper really and sincerely pitied the man, pitied him from his heart. He was a good old thing, but out of touch, pathetically inadequate. However, his chauffeur looked like a keen enough young chap. Funny foreign-looking moustache, but then a good driver was like any other real artist. Better in fact. They had to have a little leeway. Topper would have a word with him one day. Exchange views on cars. Democratic. That was it. A man in his position could afford to be democratic. It went. As for the president, it was too bad. Topper felt sorry for him.
Now the strange thing about it was that on this particular morning the president, sighting his world-weary eyes between the bronze eyes of his Great Dane desk ornament, felt pleased to permit Topper to occupy his gaze.
"A solid man," thought the president. "A good man and a worker. I can count on him. The others"—and the president's eyes never flickered—"brilliant, but they're waiting to cut my throat. To them this bank isn't home, it's something they want to control through votes and money and chicanery. Now Topper's different. He's a man, at least. Loyal to a fault."
And the president, rousing his great body, towered like a devastating sun over the gleaming surface of his desk, then slowly advanced on Topper.
"You're looking fit, Topper," he said. "This man from Texas has been in again. Don't want to see him . . . Come upstairs. We'll talk it over."
"Why this?" he thought. "Why have I been selected?
Topper little realised that there was a new light in his eyes that set him apart from his fellow men. It was young and fresh. The president was an old man, and, like Topper, he had grown weary from watching eyes. He had peered into them for more than half a century . . . too deeply.
Topper is speeding through the shadows like a virgin to a forbidden tryst. He is thrilled with secret alarm. In the close embrace of the night there is something almost personal. It clings to Topper like a wronged woman, filling him with a desire to be elsewhere.
For nearly a week now Topper had been lying steadily, mostly to his wife. Once he had stooped so low as to lie to the garbage man. Topper had come to that. It was excusable in this case, for the man collected garbage of the better sort throughout the town, and in order to forget his occupation, he continually busied his tongue with other people's affairs.
The seal of sin is settling on Topper's brow. He looks healthier and less uninteresting. He suspects everyone and, without being aware of it, he has been having a tremendous change.
At the garage, Mark is waiting for him. Good old Mark! Topper loves the man.
Topper arrives. There is a hurried conversation. Then each through his appointed door slides into the seat and they are off like a pair of conscience-stricken grave robbers. Mark is driving and Topper is doing strange, futile things with the brim of his felt hat. Instead of concealing his face, he succeeds in making himself look like a foppish desperado. He is hoping that he appears both sinister and repulsive so that people will avert their gaze without recognising him, whereas, in truth, had any of Topper's friends seen him at this moment, they would have been astonished beyond measure, their cherished belief in the eternal sameness of things completely demolished.
The car proceeds down a side street to that section of the town near which no nice people care to build. In this belittered and uncorseted neighbourhood Topper feels more at ease. This place which he once considered a reproach to the community, when he considered it at all, has become pleasantly familiar to him, a part of his secret life. It is the hidden door that leads to the open road. The dour houses and dim shops no longer make him uneasy. He regards them with a friendly eye which does not drop disapprovingly at the sight of a woman nursing her child on the least populous step of a front stoop. And when a mulatto maid swings down the street and stops to talk with the technically white youth in the livery stable, the moral responsibility of the race question does not weigh down Topper's heart. "Whose business is it?" he thinks to himself. "People should mind their own affairs." Anyway, she was an upstanding figure of a woman.
Soon the town is left behind and the car spins along an unfrequented road.
"What did you tell her to-night, Mr. Topper?" asks Mark.
"Meeting of the Town Guardians," replies Topper, emerging from his hat.
"Last night it was a Fire Council," continues Mark. "What's it going to be to-morrow?"
"The Assessment Club," snaps Topper promptly.
Mark gives a low whistle of admiration and the conversation languishes.
"They were killed some way down the road," Mark announces presently. "Want to see the tree? It's on the other end of the old bridge."
"Certainly not," says Topper. "To gaze upon the departing point of my predecessors would hardly add to my skill. I want to shift the gears, not chatter through them."
"All right," replies Mark, bringing the car to a stop. "You take the wheel and turn her around. Drive down the line a bit and then come back. Keep turning, and if anything comes along pull in close to the side and stop. I'll keep an eye out."
Like a dog beneath the caress of an unfamiliar hand the gears shivered nervously at Mr. Topper's touch. They did not exactly chatter, but from time to time uttered cries of protest, like a child aroused from sleep by a convulsive pain in its stomach. Mr. Topper drove wisely but not well. He obeyed all the dictates of common sense, but still there was something lacking. Through no discernible fault of his own he seemed to bring out all the wayward traits of the car. It stopped without reason and started without grace. It darted as if pursued, then loitered alluringly. It displayed all the varied moods of a temperamental woman, one moment purring soothingly, the next scolding petulantly, now running ahead blind to caution, now holding back in virtuous alarm. It strayed from the path and returned again, and it treated its ardent possessor with the arrogant indifference of a beautiful thing. Mr. Topper was charmed. Not so Mark. Nevertheless, after three-quarters of an hour of conscientious objecting the car was turned over to Mark, and Mr. Topper, moistly relinquishing the wheel, surveyed the June evening and found it good.
"You'll get by," remarked Mark as he headed the car for home.
And Mr. Topper did get by, what with the influence of Mark and a handful of cigars. Characteristically enough it was not until Mr. Topper held in his hands the official card entitling him to drive that he felt sure of his ability. The card dispelled all lingering doubt. He belonged to the brotherhood of the road. He had been tested and received. He could now speak on equal terms with the boy who delivered the ice. He had something in common with practically all the world.
There were several surprises in store for Mrs. Cosmo Topper on the Saturday following the purchase of the car. The first one came when Mr. Topper, returning from the city, announced without previous warning that he was starting a two weeks' vacation. Mrs. Topper successfully punctured the glory of this surprise by feeling audibly sorry that she was hardly up to going anywhere. Topper, not to be outdone, snatched her fleeting triumph by saying that he was just as well pleased. Of course he was sorry about her not feeling well, but then he was always sorry about that—stoically so, thought his wife.
Her second surprise came when Topper informed her that immediately after luncheon he proposed to attend a meeting of the Defence Society. Mrs. Topper saw scant reason for this, but made no comment until the meal was finished.
"What's this?" she said as he rose from the table. "What are all these meetings about? First it's the Town Guardians, then the Fire Council . . ."
"The other way 'round," corrected Mr. Topper, artistically cherishing his lies.
"Well, it doesn't very much matter, does it?" she replied. "What's got into this town? All these meetings!"
"Sparrows," said Mr. Topper as he jauntily left the room.
Mrs. Topper followed her husband with wondering eyes. What a terse and uninforming answer! How unlike the usually explicit Cosmo! Sparrows. Why that?
A few hours later a third surprise caused Mrs. Topper to emerge with unwonted haste from the house. Topper, abandoning his secret life, was sounding his horn in the driveway. Mrs. Topper, from the front porch, saw a rather flushed and foolish-looking man of middle age gazing brightly at her from the driving seat of a glittering automobile.
"Well, what do you think of us now?" asked the man in a voice which conveyed the impression that Mrs. Topper would never be able adequately to express her admiration in words.
Mrs. Topper did not answer immediately. He had not expected her to. That was partly the fun of it—the dawning of delight, the wonder and unbelief and then the appreciation. Indigestion would be forgotten. A new era would start for them.
"You gave me such a start," said Mrs. Topper. "What on earth are you trying to do with that garish-looking car?"
"Trying?" replied Mr. Topper, making a brave effort to retain his smile. "Trying? Why, I'm not trying, my dear. I'm actually driving it. I drove it here all the way from the garage. It's ours. Yours and mine. We own it."
"You might own it," Mrs. Topper said, "but we don't. Keep me out of it. I won't be involved. Everybody in town knows the Kerbys' car. Even I recognise it. I've seen it thousands of times. A second-hand car. What a thing to do!"
Topper's smile would not stay fixed. No matter how he strove, his lips refused to respond. Everything was so different from what he had expected.
"I know," he explained, looking down at the wheel. "This is only our practice car. New one next year. Nice though, isn't it?"
"I don't think it's a bit nice," said Mrs. Topper. "Nor do I think it nice of you to sit there and enjoy yourself. Buying an automobile and not letting me know, picking up the most vulgar car in town, coming home at this hour and making noises on the lawn, upsetting my nerves and spoiling the leg of lamb . . ."
Then Mrs. Topper received her last surprise.
"Damn the leg of lamb!" he shouted, embittered beyond endurance by his wife's reception of his surprise. "I'm going for a drive."
An offensive honking or the horn overfilled Mrs. Topper's cup of woe.
"He seems to be able to drive it," she reluctantly admitted to herself as the automobile wavered down Glendale Road.
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