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The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith


The Nebulous Lap

IT could not be said of Mr. Topper that he was in a brown study as he drove away from his wife. He was keenly alive to the fact that he was sitting alone in a moving automobile entirely dependent on him for pace and direction. He alone was now responsible for the safety of the car as well as for his own safety. This knowledge never for a moment left his mind. In spite of it, Mr. Topper was preoccupied, or as preoccupied as a person in his position could afford to be. Violence had been done to his feelings, and a reaction had set in. After a week of tremendous lying, during which time life had seemed to be disclosing new and splendid vistas, Topper suddenly felt that after all life was no whit different. It was as flat and stale as ever. Automobiles were no use, nor were little attempts, nor anything.

"Oh, damn that leg of lamb," he muttered, slowing down with elaborate caution at the sight of a car two blocks distant.

As the automobile passed Mr. Topper, the eyes of the man at the wheel grew incredulous with wonder. He leaned over the side and looked back. He came to a stop and continued to stare.

"That's Hart," said Topper to himself. "Well, damn him, too. He'll spread the news around. Let him. See if I care."

And Topper stepped on the gas.

Through force of habit he took the same road he had learned to know so well with Mark. This was not the drive he had intended taking—not if she had been decent and friendly about things, but now it did not matter. He drove along, occupied with his thoughts, keeping his eye on the road and paying very little attention to the scenery. Presently he became aware that he had passed his usual limits. Ahead of him was the bridge on the other end of which the Kerbys had met their fate. Topper had never driven over a bridge before and the rattling of planks unnerved him. He stopped on the after-side to regain his composure.

The tree must be somewhere close at hand, for Mark had said it was just at the end of the bridge. Topper got out of the automobile and looked morbidly about him. At the edge of the road stood a stunted tree with a gashed and splintered trunk. Undoubtedly it was the one, the very tree that had caused George and Marion Kerby hastily to withdraw from their questionable circle of friends. Topper surveyed the tree thoughtfully. Two human lives, two warm and vigorous creatures, had been sped into eternity against the age-old bark of that tree. He glanced up. Leaves were out on the upper branches, and wings were flitting through them. Life still went on with the tree. It drank in the moist earth and tossed its palms to the sun. It was made of sterner stuff than mortals. It was more firmly rooted to the earth. Topper had a funny thought. If he had had a son this tree would still be green and filled with birds when the boy was gray and gazing back on life. Topper wanted a son, he felt the need of youth, an enthusiastic, unspoiled soul, to stimulate his ebbing interest in the automobile, someone to admire his daring and to speak favourably of his newly acquired art. Topper was on the point of becoming a shade self-sympathetic.

An observer of character seeing him at that moment would have paused to ponder over his unremarkable figure. He looked rather small beneath the majestic reaches of the tree, and his stomach seemed pitifully brave, thrusting itself out aggressively into a world that could trump with mountains. The observer would have noted Topper's stomach and the sturdily planted legs, and without exactly forgetting these features, would have really remembered Topper's face. There dwelt the Prince of Denmark, shadowed and filled with trouble, an inarticulate prince, perhaps, run to flesh and bland of mien, but a prince withal, probing the problem of life and the mystic charm of death, a man existing reluctantly, unconsciously seeking release.

Mr. Topper turned from the tree and wormed himself into the automobile. And the observer, had he been endowed with cattish curiosity, would have noted by the labourings of Topper's body that he had not long been familiar with the driving seat of an automobile. Once in he relaxed, then, collecting his scattered members, arranged his feet and hands as Mark had patiently instructed him.

"Just the same," thought Topper with an important feeling of ownership, "these trees shouldn't grow so close to the road. There should be a law about trees. A sort of a movement. Something done."

At this particular time Mr. Topper's conception of the ideal tour was limited only by the skyline of the Sahara Desert, a wide, unobstructed expanse affording adequate room for turning. Topper's social instincts did not extend to motoring. He preferred an unfrequented road where only nature could hear the neighing of the gears, and where there would be naught of alarm to galvanise his nerves.

Mr. Topper made the customary movements, and with delightful regularity the scenery began to slide by. He became aware of an oncoming line of trees, flashing things filled with shadows, he felt a dip and a gentle rise and gazed across a sunken plain soft with grass, scarred by fences and heckled by an astonishingly undecided brook that turned and doubled on its path. Mr. Topper found himself enjoying this hollow expanse of green. It was longer than it was wide and it seemed to extend for miles. Only the woods on the other side put a stop to its triumphant march. There were dots of trees on the sunken plain, intimate groups of clustering green, but they did not rob the plain of its vastness. Instead they emphasised its majesty like a contentious family huddled beneath the vaulting dome of a deserted railroad station.

"Take those fences down," thought Topper, "and what a space you'd have. Cavalry could charge across those fields."

What a lovely place it was . . . the unexpectedly good road, the sunken fields, the sky closing them in and the occasional farmhouse bereft of life. The road puzzled Topper. It was as if the world had planned a secret path to nowhere. He felt that he was riding on through an endless dusky solitude. He no longer troubled about the car. It seemed to be running itself. There were trees on one side, green curving space on the other, and an unobstructed road ahead. Topper had become blended with his surroundings. His body was blotting up the landscape and his mind, no longer functioning, seemed to be absorbing the lights and shades and smells along the road. The colour of the sky, now churning red with sunset, dropped like a mantle on Mr. Topper and filled the world with stillness.

And out of the stillness a voice spoke to Mr. Topper.

"Topper," it said, "Topper, perhaps you do not realise you are sitting on my wife's lap—or do you?"

Topper's hands grew white on the wheel. He made an effort to stop the car, but as the machine seemed disinclined to stop he abandoned the effort and looked steadfastly in front of him, blindly refusing to admit the fact that he had heard a voice without seeing its owner. The thing just could not be. He, Topper, was at fault, or at least he heartily hoped so. Driving had overtaxed his imagination. The strange solitude of the place and the calm, mysterious beauty of the landscape had affected him. It would have affected anybody.

So Mr. Topper drove on. The behaviour of the automobile disturbed him, although he would not admit to himself that it was acting in any way unusual. Nevertheless it was. It had become a self-propelled vehicle in the fullest sense of the term. It no longer concerned itself with Topper, but obeyed the dictates of its newly acquired independence. It did not hitch and spurt along the road, but progressed smoothly at a speed which the discreet Topper viewed with sincere alarm. Once when the motor slowed down he made an attempt to shift the gears, only to be paralysed by a voice exclaiming irritably:

"Don't do that!"

After this Mr. Topper withdrew completely from the management of the car and dropped to the rather unimportant position usually allotted to a pig-iron image arbitrarily spiked to the front seat of a toy fire engine. And Mr. Topper looked the part. His face was a mask and his arms had become angular and rigid. He was certain of this, however: the first voice had been a man's, whereas the second had been unmistakably feminine. After making a mental note of this Mr. Topper closed his mind. It was better not to think—safer.

"Topper," began the first voice, sounding quite polite and reasonable, "must I remind you again that you are sitting on my wife's lap? Why not squeeze over now and . . ."

"Stop!" cried Mr. Topper, coming to a quick decision, and with an extraordinary effort arresting the speed of the car. "Stop," he repeated, "and for God's sake don't begin again. I can't stand it."

"Come, come now, Mr. Topper," admonished the voice.

"Don't," pleaded Topper. "Let me speak. Please listen. I've bought and paid for this automobile. With great mental anguish I've learned how to make it work, but I'll give it to you, give it gladly, if you'll let me step quietly out, and you then drive on as fast and as far as you can."

Mr. Topper looked earnestly at the vacant seat beside him. He wanted a reply and yet he waited for it with dread.

"Why so tragic?" the voice began. "Why shun our company? Three can sit just as comfortably on this seat as two. We've done it often. Just squeeze over a little."

" You don't seem to understand," said Mr. Topper, with the patience of desperation. "If the seat were a thousand leagues wide I would still feel cramped. Take the car. You're welcome to it. Take it to some far place. Have a nice drive, a good time, but leave me behind. Let me get out. I'm not enjoying myself."

"Still tragic," retorted the voice. "And all the time you are wallowing on my wife's lap."

Topper had a strange and uncomfortable sensation. He felt, or imagined he felt, a pair of arms passing through his body on their way to the wheel. He was almost sure that for some minutes these arms had been playfully hugging him around the waist, and once more he became painfully aware of his stomach. It was indeed an objectionable feature.

"How about my wife's lap?" questioned the voice.

"Hang it all!" Topper exclaimed. "Why doesn't she move over? I didn't sit on her lap, you know. She got it there."

"Topper," rebuked the voice. "You surprise us. I might say, you offend us. I might, mind you, Topper, but I don't."

"Offend you!" cried Mr. Topper. "Great God! What next?"

"Now, taking up the matter of my wife's lap," continued the voice, "I still maintain . . ."

Mr. Topper became mentally unfit to hear the remainder of the remark. He had passed into one of those distracted calms that precede lunacy. Out of this calm he heard himself saying, with tastefully garnished sarcasm:

"After all, the car really does belong to me. I bought the thing, but not your wife's lap. I'm sorry, but I wash my hands of your wife's lap. You can take the lap or leave it. I'm not responsible. If her lap insists on sitting under me I'm not to blame. However, if you and your wife and her everlasting lap would disappear as speedily as possible, the countryside would not bear witness to my grief. Certainly not."

"We've already disappeared as much as possible," said the voice rather gloomily.

"Not enough for me," replied Topper.

"All right, then," said the voice. "Move over, Marion. Topper wants to hog the car."

"Hog the car!" retorted Mr. Topper. "Whose car is it? Answer me that. Answer me fairly that. Whose car is it, I ask you? If your wife's lap were at all ladylike . . ."

"What's this about my wife's lap?" interrupted the voice, a trifle excitedly. "Make one unfavourable reference to my wife's lap. Just one. Let me hear it."

"Now, for God's sake, boys, don't let's have any trouble," put in a woman's voice pleadingly. "Come on, let's get together. That's how it happened the last time. Be sensible, George. Topper seems to be a game old bird."

"Old birds are inclined to be gamey," remarked Topper.

"Ah, there, Topper," said the woman's voice. "Getting common? And still sitting on my lap?"

"just so," joined in the man's voice. "Don't go any further. Try to remember that you're still sitting on my wife's lap. I don't want any trouble."

Topper's whole mental system was undergoing a revolution. It did not occur to him that he was having a row with space, or that he was being calculatingly nasty to nothingness. So absorbed had he become in the injustice done to himself that, for the moment, the unconventionality of the situation had slipped his mind. Topper was thoroughly aroused.

"Prove to me that I am sitting on your wife's lap," he said.

"Do you understand the fourth dimension?" politely inquired the man's voice.

"Why should I?" said Topper.

"Well, we do," continued the voice. "As a matter of fact you might almost say that we are the fourth dimension. Not of the oldest families, perhaps, but pretty well sponsored at that. It would be a waste of time to attempt to explain it to you, so you'll have to take my word for it. You, Topper, are sitting most heavily, most grossly, on my wife's lap. No man has ever done it, with my knowledge, for the same length of time that you have. I repeat—with my knowledge."

"Don't indulge your jealous nature," said the woman's voice. "Don't irritate me."

"I'm going to leave this car," announced Topper. "I hate bickering."

Topper made an effort to rise, then sank back in his seat. He had an odd feeling. Two arms were holding him round the waist. They were the most material arms he had ever encountered, yet he could not see them. They held him firmly, and made a noticeable depression in his stomach. This impression without the arms was too much for Topper.

"She's holding me," he gasped, sweat beading his lips. "Tell her to take her arms away."

"Not until you promise to be good," replied the woman's voice.

"Let me go," pleaded Topper, "and I'll promise anything. If you'll only take your arms away from my—my—"

"Your stomach?" suggested the woman.

"All right," exclaimed Topper. "Have it your way. If you'll only remove your arms I'll slide over gladly."

Topper drew a deep breath as he felt himself released. Casting a timid glance on either side of him, he slid to the middle of the seat with a movement which for him was voluptuously sinuous.

"At last you've succeeded in getting me between you," he said with spiteful resignation. "Go on now and drive me mad. Finish the job. Smash the car. I don't want it and my wife can't stand it."

"Why can't your wife stand it?" asked the woman's voice.

"Oh, I don't know," replied Topper. "All her reasons are rather obscure. She says the thing belonged to the Kerbys and that's enough for her. It's too notorious."

"Go on, Mr. Topper," said the woman's voice as the automobile gathered pace. "What else did she say?"

Mr. Topper was neither the wisest nor the most observant of men. His ears were attuned to only one danger signal, Mrs. Topper. The beautiful simplicity of the man lay in the fact that at his age he still thought of his wife as being quite an exceptional woman. His optimistic nature led him to believe that she alone of all her tribe had been cursed with an unfortunate disposition, that she alone was the victim of implacable indigestion, that she alone was the only woman who considered herself a martyr and who forced her husband so to consider her. There was only one Mrs. Topper. It was inconceivable that there could be two. Topper clung to this hope. It comforted him a little to imagine that all the other women in the world were different, that they had no small animosities, that they did not spend an hour in saying something that could have been as easily stated in three minutes, that they did not take advantage of the fact that they were women and as a consequence nervous wrecks, that they did not spasmodically attempt to please their husbands while consistently endeavouring to crush them, that they were not interested in the puerile mystery surrounding the sudden departure of Mrs. Smith's cook or the Robinsons' trip to Maine, or the fact that the Harts were still in town. Mr. Topper honestly believed that his wife had been especially set aside for him by a kind but casual god. In this belief he accepted her, but not without some mental reservations.

"What else did Mrs. Topper say?" continued the woman's voice.

"I forget," he replied. "She's said so many things."

"For instance?"

"Well, that Marion Kerby was no better than she should be and that her husband was a sot who consumed all his time and money in keeping himself numb with drink."

"That will do," broke in the man's voice. "I've heard enough. Do you happen to know who we are—or were?"

"I had hoped that our acquaintance would never become so intimate," said Topper with the utmost earnestness.

"Well, it has," said the man's voice. "You are speaking to and driving with both George and Marion Kerby. Now how does that make you feel?"

"I ceased to feel some time ago," replied Mr. Topper, "but if I hadn't, your information would be like tossing a paralytic in a blanket."

"The old crow," came contemplatively from the driving seat. "So that sombre old fogey said that I was no better than I should be. Did you hear what he said, George? Hit him."

"He didn't say it," said George. "Be reasonable. He's not responsible for his wife's remarks. No man is. The race would perish."

"But just the same she said it," the wheel replied broodingly.

At this point Mr. Topper felt forced to interpose an objection. Routine loyalty compelled him to speak.

"In the first place you are a woman," he said, "and in the second you're invisible, and for that reason you're taking a doubly unfair advantage of your sex and lack of substance by calling my wife an old crow and a fogey."

Mr. Topper made a mental note of the two expressions. He would never apply them directly to his wife, but it would be quite a comfort to think them at times.

"Look here," exclaimed the man's voice. "I'll knock your block off if you begin to pull that first and second place stuff with us. Where do you get . . ."

"Now for God's sake don't let's have any trouble, boys," the wheel pleaded. "Remember, George, we were smashed up the last time."

"Then why did you start things now?"

"Start things? Me?"

"Yes, you, with all your personal injuries."

"I must say you're extremely unreasonable."

"Me unreasonable? Hell's bells! That's a good one."

"Don't be despicable."

Mr. Topper had been watching the casual conduct of the car with increasing anxiety. He thought that it was now high time to enter into the discussion.

"I hope," he said, carefully considering the advisability of each word, "that you won't take it in ill part if I say that at present I have no desire to join your nebulous state. The situation, bad as it is, would be less desperate if I could only feel that someone, no matter how invisible, was paying attention to the car."

Topper was silent for a moment, then his true feelings triumphed.

"I hate bickerings," he said.

He was astounded by hearing a hearty peal of laughter from the steering wheel. Manifestations of mirth encompassed him.

"Stick to the road," he urged.

"'Stick-to-the-road-Topper!'" the woman's voice exulted. "That's a good name. Let's call him that."

"Only for introductions," replied the other voice consideringly. "Too long for ordinary use. 'Cosmo' is rather crisp. Why paint the lily?"

"What do you mean about introductions?" inquired Mr. Topper uneasily. "Have you any friends? I don't want to meet them. Remember that. Absolutely no."

"I hope you wouldn't embarrass us in case we met a group of our friends," replied the man.

"Embarrass you? Oh, I don't know what I'd do. My God, a group! Not just a friend, but a group!" Topper's voice was distracted.

"Well, how about meeting some of yours?" suggested George. "There are quite a few over here. Not an honest piece of ectoplasm in the bunch."

"Look where you're driving," breathed Topper, reaching for something to cling to, yet unwilling to thrust his arms through the invisible bodies beside him. "I never wanted less to die in all my life."

"Tactful Topper," said Marion.

A slight difficulty with a rail fence momentarily retarded conversation. When the car emerged from the dispute bearing a battered fender Topper voiced his unhappiness by remarking that there was scant comfort to be gained by sitting between two ethereal bodies while one's very soul was being shot through space.

"I have nothing to cling to save hope," he said. "And even that grows dim."

A turn in the road disclosed in the distance the lights of a small town. Mr. Topper gave a sigh of relief. During the course of the conversation he had not actually believed in its reality. He had preferred to accustom his mind to the fact that he had gone mad, mildly mad, and, as he fervently hoped, temporarily so. The best way to combat this madness, he concluded, was to give in to it, to make no effort to regain sanity, but gradually to feel his way back to his normal state like a man delicately shaking a leg that had fallen asleep. Topper felt that a village street, stark and solid beneath the glare of the lights, and thronged with the usual Saturday night collection of rustics, would do much to restore his mental poise. He would leave the car and mingle with these people. He would not actually kiss and hug them, but he would feel like doing so. Spiritually he would shower them with embraces, and as he absorbed the life of the town the imaginings of the road would fade away and he, Topper, would once more be a full-fledged member of the human race instead of a rebellious participant in an occult phenomenon.

"For the sake of appearance," he remarked to the wheel, "we had better exchange positions as we drive into the town. People have grown accustomed to seeing someone sitting at the steering gear of automobiles. It may seem silly to you, but if we drove down the main street of this town under the present arrangement I would probably be burned for a witch or thrust into solitary confinement."

"You need never fear solitude, Topper, so long as we're around," replied Marion.

"Don't misunderstand me," Topper hastened to explain. "I have no fear of solitude. I yearn for it. . . absolute solitude unbroken by the sound of a voice or the knowledge of a presence."

"All right," said Marion. "Let's change seats. Move over."

"How can I be sure that we are changing seats?" Mr. Topper inquired.

"I'll see that she does," replied George Kerby. "Stop at the nearest garage. We need gas." A few minutes later Mr. Topper drew up at a garage. He had never before bought gasoline. The situation perplexed him.

"How much shall I get?" he whispered over his shoulder.

"Ten gallons will be enough," Kerby announced. "Get some oil, too."

"Not so loud," Topper pleaded as he got out of the automobile and approached the unenterprising deity of the place. The deity regarded Topper with aversion and his car with disgust. He was almost hostile in his disapproval. Topper could sense it by the angle of the man's hat and the tilt of his cigar. Nevertheless, Topper addressed the deity, tactfully suggesting his co-operation in procuring oil and gasoline.

"Bring your car under the pump," commanded the deity, filling Topper's face with smoke. Topper objected to the smoke, but felt that at least it was more tangible than phantoms.

"One moment," he replied, turning round, then he froze in his tracks, his last hope banished. After all he was not mad, not even mildly so. The automobile, apparently unassisted, was busily edging itself up to the pump. He glanced guiltily at the deity as if to seek comfort in his repellent countenance, but no comfort was there to be found. The deity had momentarily become a mortal. You could tell that by the gold fillings in his teeth twinkling through his widely separated lips.

"How did you do that?" asked the man. Topper laughed a trifle wildly, as he waved a protesting hand at the car. "Quite a trick, eh? Well, I had her all set, but I guess the brakes slipped."

The man's face cleared, his mouth closed and once more he became a deity. But as he approached the tube to the tank his features again altered. This time his eyes became prominent. As he gazed at the brass cap of the gasoline tank they were much more eloquent with astonishment than the gold fillings. The thing was slowly and mysteriously unscrewing itself. Suddenly it moved through the air, then came to repose on the mudguard of the car. Topper stood by fascinated.

"How did you do that?" demanded the man.

"What?" said Topper wearily, taking out his handkerchief and hiding his face therein. "I wish you'd stop asking me how I do things. I just do them, that's all. Automatic springs. New device. Haven't time to go into all that."

As the man filled the tank with gasoline Topper hurried to the front of the car and leaned in.

"For God's sake stop trying to be so helpful," he whispered. "I'll do everything."

An ineffectually stifled giggle smote his ears. "Who's laughing?" called the man from the rear of the car.

Topper had not the time to answer. Something was taking place in front that demanded all his attention. A water bucket insecurely balanced on thin air was emptying its contents into the radiator. Topper sprang forward and seized the bucket.

"I'm just giving her water," he shouted. "You must have heard the gurgle. This car always gurgles like that. It's a habit."

When the radiator was filled Mr. Topper became engaged in a violent struggle with the bucket, for George Kerby, still bent on being helpful, was trying to take the thing back to the garage. For a few moments the bucket danced crazily in the air, then fell clattering to the ground, from which it was seized by some unknown agent and carried swiftly in the direction of the garage. Mr. Topper sped after the bucket, his outstretched hand separated from the handle by several inches of space.

"I'm just returning the bucket," he called over his shoulder. "I'll be right with you." Then under his breath, "Kerby, don't run so fast. Let me at least catch up with the bucket. I merely want to pretend I'm carrying it."

The deity, now transformed into one of the most disturbed creatures that had ever watered gasoline, stood watching Topper's pursuit of the bucket. He saw it describe an arc in the air, and Topper leaping after it with great agility and determination. He saw the bucket rolling rapidly across the floor and Topper, lost to dignity, rolling after it. Finally he saw Topper rise triumphantly with the bucket in his hand and place it under the water faucet, where for a short space it bounced gaily up and down, then settled to rest beneath the weight of Mr. Topper's body. The man did not stay to see any more, but faced about and hurried down the street. As he did so the automobile began to honk vociferously, a door flew open and a woman's voice called impatiently to Mr. Topper. The man increased his pace, then broke into an earnest dogtrot. Still honking madly, the automobile turned into the road and sped away in the opposite direction. But the man did not stop to watch its tail light disappear.

In the automobile Topper was sitting in silence and perspiration. George and Marion Kerby were talking to him at the same time, but Topper refused to answer. He was a crushed man, a hurt man. The scene still lived in his eyes, that ghastly pursuit of the bucket. And it lingered in his eyes until the automobile came to a stop beside the great tree that had dispatched the Kerbys. Here Topper began to laugh softly to himself. He was thinking of the amazement on the garage-man's face. Mr. Topper's laugh gathered in volume. It was swelled by the laughter of George and Marion Kerby. The night was filled with their mirth. The old tree rustled its remonstrating branches above the automobile, but the laughter mocked its rebuke. A farmer driving home from market warily skirted the glare of the headlights and clicked to his mare. Down the road and through the night the wild laughter followed the creaking cart.

"They were all sittin' in the front seat huggin' and kissin' and carryin' on crazy," the farmer told his wife at the end of the drive. "I could see 'em as plain as day. Women smokin' and goin' on scandlous."

"Them townspeople drink too much," replied the wife as she filled the old man's glass with a generous allotment of good old Jersey cider.

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