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The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith


Disaster at the Curb

THUS began for Mr. Topper an unusual experience, to say the least. Not knowing the circumstances, his friends chastely called it demoralising. But not so Mr. Topper. For the first time in his life he consciously, nay, deliberately, assumed a minority rôle. For the first time he permitted himself to deal with abstract things without feeling that he had sinned. For the first time Topper's established routine of living gave place to a disorderly desire to live. And for the first time on an evening in June, Topper wonderingly considered the stars, not in relation to a smart New Jersey town, but in the relation of the town to the stars.

This was the second phase of Topper's secret life. It was in this phase that he came to regard the place in which he lived as a pool fed by the withering souls of people who had passed up life. They were usual people, the people who fed this pool. They had been accepted and asked out to places. They commuted, propagated, and entertained with impartial uniformity. In all the things of life they used the same time-table. Mr. Topper could not call them vicious. That was the trouble. Topper bent his brain over an abstract problem. His friends would have been surprised had they seen the man actually screwing his face into childish wrinkles over such a time-consuming thought.

And all was not well at home with Topper. He had cursed a leg of lamb. He had actually damned the thing. Mrs. Topper could not forget that. Had he cursed her she might have dimly understood, but to hurl imprecations at a tender leg of lamb, a thoughtfully selected leg of lamb—oh, no, that could not be forgotten. Men might rebel against their God, but a leg of lamb, a household deity, a savory roast . . . sacrilege, its very seat and circle!

In spite of her husband's offence Mrs. Topper maintained the brooding sameness of things. It gave her a better opportunity than an open breach to confound him with the seriousness of the situation, the utter hopelessness of it, the black despair. They still occupied their appointed chairs on opposite sides of the sitting-room table. Topper still read his paper while Mrs. Topper did darting things with her needle to a piece of linen. Each dart picked a little fibre out of Topper's nerves. So terrible did it all seem that at times he could hardly restrain himself from dodging as the needle sought its mark. On these occasions Topper clung to Scollops for bodily comfort and moral support. And Scollops with luxurious undulation yawned callously in the face of tragedy. It was not of her making. She was gloatingly out of it. What was important, however, was a good sound sleep. Topper's thigh was a comfortable place for a good sound sleep, though of late, Scollops daintily decided, this erstwhile unimpeachable mattress had been growing a trifle too muscular.

In vain did Mr. Topper try to recapture romance in the eyes of Scollops. Her eyes were closed in slumber. In vain did he seek distraction in market quotations. Industrial bonds no longer inspired him with a feeling of solid security. In vain did he let his eyes shirt round the room in search of some object to hold his attention. The room was filled with objects, but for Topper they were bereft of interest. Once, in a fit of desperation, he faltered out an invitation to Mrs. Topper. It was a beautiful afternoon, pervaded with dripping sunlight and carpeted with leagues of green. It would be nice to go driving on such an afternoon. The roads would be almost free from traffic and nobody much would be around to observe them. It would be quite exciting. Mrs. Topper would enjoy it. He imagined that there would be a nice, fresh breeze and that the fields would look quite young and new. They could stop at a roadhouse, a respectable one, the "Rose-Marie," and have tea. Well, what did she say to that?

Topper looked hopefully at his wife, then looked away. He knew exactly what she was going to say to that. He could have said it for her. But he did not have to. She said it for herself. She was just a little too tired today to risk the roads. They might upset her even more than she was already if such an upheaval were possible. Last night had been a bad one—sleepless. A dragging night. Anyway, she was not particularly interested in automobiles, but he, Topper, was. Why didn't he go out and take a nice drive? She, too, was sure there would be a lovely breeze and that the fields would be lovely also. She would stay at home. A sigh. She was better off at home. A look. Home was the place for her. A sigh and a look.

"But," said Topper, his voice trembling slightly as he rose from his chair and confronted his wife, "you haven't even so much as looked at the automobile. You haven't touched one part of it with the tip of your little finger. Aren't you interested at all? There's lots of nice things about it. Come out and watch me light a cigar. You'd be surprised, Mary." His voice grew low with excitement. "I'll teach you how to drive. You could do it. Look at me! It would help you with your indigestion."

Mrs. Topper put down her sewing and looked up at her husband's earnest face. What absurdly young eyes he had, she thought. Behind her unsympathetic expression struggled a sincere desire to smile at Topper, to go out and pat the automobile, to marvel over the cigar-lighter, to sit in the front seat and to tell Topper how wonderful he was. Just a little smile would have altered the situation, but the smile was not forthcoming. Topper was making her resentful. He was committing a terrible crime. He was destroying her good opinion of herself. Topper was making her realise how calculatingly cruel and unsympathetic she was, how stubborn as a wife and inadequate as a friend. No man could make her feel like that and gain her forgiveness. No matter how the reconciliation came about, she must be the generous spirit and Topper the self-centred. She could not conceive of herself playing any other rôle. Furthermore, Topper was showing himself up in altogether too favourable a light. She was aware of that. She realised that Topper was an exceptionally decent person. This added to her resentment. What right had he to be like that? Was he deliberately trying to emphasise the difference in their characters? Finally, Mrs. Topper had no desire to lose her indigestion. It was the very last thing in the world she wanted to lose. Mrs. Topper needed her indigestion. She lived in and for her indigestion. It took the place of a child. She was tender about it. And in her mistaken mind she hoped that, like a child, her indigestion would help her to hold her husband. It gave her an extra claim on him. Mrs. Topper, folding her hands in her lap, spoke to her husband in a dead, level voice deliberately tuned to dash all hope.

"You bought the automobile," she said. "You bought it behind my back. You selfishly robbed me of my pleasure. Selfishly. Yes, that's it. You're so selfish and self-centred, so interested in your own affairs, that you don't know I'm alive. And I'm not. I'm not even—"

"I know, dear," Topper broke in. "You're not even half alive. I realise it. That indigestion! But really now I wasn't selfish. That is, I didn't mean to be. I figured on surprising you and I worked so hard to—"

"Don't! " commanded Mrs. Topper. "You have told me to my face that I'm not even half alive."

"But I thought that was what you were going to say," hastened Topper. "I just wanted to agree."

"You had better go driving," said Mrs. Topper coldly. "Find somebody who is a little less dead than I am."

Topper drooped his shoulders and turned away without answering. He was thinking to himself that there was more excitement in the company of two completely dead persons than he would ever find at home.

When he had gone Mrs. Topper buried her face in her hands and presently tears trickled through her fingers. "Why am I this way?" she whispered. "I don't want to be. I don't mean to be. But he shouldn't look so hurt. I hate that look."

She started up and ran to the window. Topper was labouring in the driveway. He looked like a man driving to his own execution. Mrs. Topper hurried out on the porch and called to him.

"Let me get my things," she said. "I'll be right out."

Inside she dried her tears on the precious piece of linen.

Topper was radiant as his wife got into the car.

"Look here," he said, pulling at the electric lighter. "Too bad I lighted my cigar, but here's how it works. See how red she's getting. Put your finger near it. Feel that heat. Some heat, eh?"

Mrs. Topper obediently approached her finger to the lighter and agreed that it was indeed some heat. However, she was not quite satisfied. Topper should say something more. He had not admitted that he was selfish and self-centred. Nor had he drawn favourable attention to Mrs. Topper's generous conduct. She suffered an acute relapse and heartily wished herself out of the car, but Topper was already turning down Glendale Road.

"Now I'm shifting the gears," he explained. "Not so hard when you get the knack. I'm not an expert yet, but you don't have to worry. Well, Mary, it's great you're along," he added a little bashfully.

No, it was not quite adequate. It should have been longer and laden with a deeper appreciation of her character. Mrs. Topper was not mollified. However, she kept her peace. She would not spoil the drive—not yet.

Now it was unfortunate that as they crossed the main street of the town Mrs. Topper decided she wanted to shop at the butcher's. It was doubly unfortunate, because Topper was not accustomed to stopping on the main streets of towns and had a perilous time wedging himself in between two intimately parked automobiles. It was even more unfortunate that, after Mrs. Topper's departure, Mr. Topper attempted to improve on his position by ramming, with no little violence, the automobile directly in front of him. People stopped and stared at Topper, then stared at the assaulted car. Several examined the damaged fender from which Mr. Topper hastily averted his woeful eyes. Where was the owner? Topper hoped that his wife would hurry so that they could get away as speedily as possible. Topper could never face the man. He felt like pinning a twenty-dollar bill to the fender with a note asking forgiveness. He would sign it "An Unknown Admirer," to make the man feel better about it.

But more unfortunate than anything else was the reappearance of Mrs. Topper in company with Clara Stevens. Mr. Topper little realised how really unfortunate this was. Clara was talking brilliantly and Mrs. Topper was absorbing with gloomy interest.

"And so Harris told him to his face that he would as soon consider buying a second-hand car as oil stock from a third cousin," she was saying as the two women drew near Topper.

The remark did not sound reassuring to Topper. But then, Mary was a sensible woman. Everyone knew how Clara went on.

"Clara was in town last week buying a new car," announced Mrs. Topper, with meaning in her voice, after the customary hypocrisies had been exchanged. "She spent a whole week going from place to place until she was completely satisfied she had made a wise selection."

Topper thought that it was rather remiss of Clara to make no reference to the fact that he was lounging picturesquely over the steering wheel of an automobile, but perhaps he looked so natural that the unusualness of the situation had not occurred to her.

"Clara picked out the car herself," continued Mrs. Topper, "and it's registered in her name. She says Harris was a dear about it, so patient with her and unselfish."

"And here it is!" exclaimed Clara, turning to the victim of Mr. Topper's skill. "Why . . . what . . . has . . . happened . . . to . . my ... car . . . my . . . nice . . . new . . . car?"

Topper thought she would never finish.

"Oh, God," he prayed to himself, "take me out of this. Translate me to the heavens. Make me a fixed star or a shooting star. I don't much care which, but deliver me now from these two women. Let me be somewhere else."

"Whatever will Harris say?" Clara tearfully asked the street.

Topper could see that the girl was moved, that her reputation as a driver was seriously involved. He knew Harris, and he knew that he was neither patient nor generous, nor was he a dear. Topperwas also afraid that some helpful bystander would point a denouncing finger at him before he had time to explain.

"I guess Harris will have to talk with me," said Topper quietly. "You see, I did it. I did it with my little car. Fix it as good as new. Stick on another fender in a minute. Sorry. The man behind me just wouldn't budge."

Mrs. Topper was being repaid for her momentary weakness. Before Clara could speak she did, which showed that she had been toeing the mark.

"You should at least have thought of me," she said. "Come, Clara, take me home, will you? I am not feeling well. I knew it would be this way. Cosmo will see that everything is arranged."

"Just a minute," called Cosmo, as the two women entered the other machine. "Aren't you coming driving with me?"

"With you?" said Mrs. Topper, her eye-brows slightly arched.

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