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The Jovial Ghosts
The Misadventures of Topper
Topper Calls on a Tree
MR TOPPER viciously pressed his foot down on the self-starter. In his imagination he was crushing the human race, especially the female branch of it, and in particular Clara Stevens. He had one desire now and only one. He wanted to cut himself off entirely from people and faces and eyes, and from tongues, too. Idle, insincere tongues. He was an embittered man and a confused one. Events had occurred too rapidly. Mentally he had tried to catch up with them. There had been a little unpleasantness at home. That had fortunately subsided. Then quite amazingly he had found himself driving off in triumph with his wife. He had talked to her engagingly about gears and electric devices. She had appeared to be interested. After all, it was going to be a successful afternoon. Everything was set for it. Then that fatal butcher shop and the accident—a slight thing. Swift on this had come Clara Stevens and exposure, followed by the contained but depressing departure of Mrs. Topper. That was the sequence of events, but Mr. Topper searched in vain for the logic. What was the good of scaling an emotional ladder if only to have its topmost rung yield beneath one's feet? "No good," thought Mr. Topper.
He was driving now with a purpose. He was going back to the tree beneath which nearly a week ago he had taken light-hearted leave of George and Marion Kerby. He was going back to the tree now and he was glad he was going back. In spite of their rather peculiar ideas of a good time, Mr. Topper felt that he understood the Kerbys far better than his more obvious friends. And George and Marion Kerby were vastly more acceptable to him than the people who constituted his social circle. He was surprised at this, but not alarmed.
Since his first experience with the Kerbys, Mr. Topper had steadfastly refrained from driving past the tree. Several times he had felt like doing so, but discretion had forced him to master the temptation. He considered communing with spirits much in the same light that he regarded the smoking of opium. It was unnatural. For all he knew it might even be habit-forming. God knows where it might end. If the Kerbys had only been sensible spirits, orderly and law-abiding, and much less active, the situation would have been different—better. Mr. Topper could have created a little club around them. On Thursday nights, for instance, they could have given interesting and uplifting talks to his friends. He, Topper, having sponsored them, would have become famous in a serious and conservative way.
"There goes Topper," people would have said. "Psychic devil. He controls two spirits." He might even have corresponded with Sir Oliver Lodge. As a matter of fact there were commercial possibilities in a pair of good tame spirits. Mr. Topper could have incorporated them. But not the Kerbys. They could hardly be trusted. Many of their actions would be too difficult to explain. If they were not quite so willing, so callously unabashed about being dead. A certain reluctance would seem more fitting.
Nevertheless, Mr. Topper was strangely attracted to the Kerbys. They were different, refreshingly set apart from the usual run of people. On his modest excursions during the past week George and Marion Kerby had been much in his mind. He had come to accept them without reservation. The ringing quality of Marion Kerby's voice still lingered in his ears. He was able to recall without too great compunction that her arms had quite unmistakably encircled his waist. Mr. Topper's vanity was secretly gratified by the fact that the Kerbys had accepted him in all good fellowship. He knew that they considered the rest of his friends as alien beings endowed with singularly worm-like qualities. But with him they were perfectly natural. Almost too natural.
So Mr. Topper was on his way to the tree—quite definitely on his way. Like a dead eye in a grey face the sun above him gazed starkly through a film of sickly clouds. There was going to be rain or something else equally unpleasant.
Topper hoped that it would clear up, and no sooner had he hoped this than it did clear up. The cloud slipped from the face of the sun and the world grew bright again beneath its rays. Mr. Topper became suspicious. There was something ominous in the alacrity of the weather to comply with his wishes. Nothing ever happened the way he hoped. Why should the weather be so obliging? Perhaps through his brief acquaintance with the Kerbys he was becoming endowed with occult powers. To test this alarming suspicion he tentatively hoped for rain. The sun plunged its face into a scum of grey vapours, and Mr. Topper immediately stopped hoping. His credulity was becoming stronger than his nerves. He feared that if he indulged further in this dangerous business of hoping he might innocently commit an entire community to a swift and painful death, Clara Stevens and Mrs. Topper prominently included.
A sudden rattling of planks startled him from his thoughts. He was crossing the dilapidated bridge. Directly ahead of him the old scarred tree shook its vigorous branches. To Mr. Topper this ancient landmark was not so much a tree as a place of residence. And he approached the tree in that spirit. When he came abreast of it he stopped the automobile and waited. Nothing unusual happened and Mr. Topper began to feel a little self-conscious.
"Anyone want a ride?" he moved himself to call. His voice sounded lonely in the branches of the tree. "I say there, Mr. Kerby, would you and your wife like to take a spin?"
"Why, it's Topper! " a voice cried out excitedly. "Hey, Marion! Topper's back. How about a ride!"
"Who's back?" came a woman's voice as if from a great distance.
"Topper is," shouted the first voice. "Wants to know if you'd like a ride. He's waiting."
"If you don't mind," Topper suggested, "I wish you'd stop that shouting. There's a waggon coming. Just run over to your wife and ask her quietly if she wants to use the car. Hold a whispered conversation."
But George Kerby was far too excited at the prospect of a ride to follow Mr. Topper's injunctions.
"Damn it, Marion," he shouted. "Make up your mind. Do you want to go or don't you? Say yes or no."
"Come, George," admonished the woman's voice. "Pull yourself together. Mr. Topper will think you never saw an automobile before. Of course I want to go driving. It was lovely of Cosmo to call. I'd about decided that he had deserted us."
The waggon had stopped beside the automobile and the driver was gazing at Mr. Topper with obstinate curiosity. Ordinarily this driver was not one easily aroused from his trance-like contemplation of his horses' moving flanks, but these strange voices coming from God knew where gave him an unpleasant sensation. Mr. Topper glanced at the man and winced.
"Come on out of the woods, you two," he commanded. "Where the devil have you got to? Why I can't even see you."
"We're picking flowers," called Marion Kerby. "We'll be right with you."
The driver's face resumed its normal mould. "Nice day," he said to Topper.
"Splendid," Mr. Topper beamed.
The driver settled back in his seat and waited. Mr. Topper, closely regarding the man, decided that from his expression he was prepared to wait indefinitely. It was an unfortunate situation. Mr. Topper got out of the automobile and surreptitiously pinched one of the horses. The offended animal immediately put himself in motion. The driver, as if desiring to conserve his energy, allowed his team to have its head. Mr. Topper returned to the automobile and waited.
"We're so forgetful," said Marion Kerby remorsefully as soon as the waggon was out of earshot. "But George is such a common creature with his great throat."
"Then why are you always moping about?" demanded George Kerby angrily. "If you had any mind at all—"
"I would never have married you," his wife triumphantly interrupted. "And I certainly wouldn't have died with you. When I was alive I put a great deal of faith in that optimistic line 'until death do us part,' but it tricked me."
"May I put in a word?" began Mr. Topper, but Kerby's voice cut him short.
"I know," he recriminated bitterly. "You tried to poison me more than once."
"When the bootleggers failed I tried my hand just for the sake of experiment," his wife replied, "but your stomach defied all natural laws."
"It seems that you both are defying a few natural laws," put in Mr. Topper.
"Listen to this," said George Kerby hurriedly. "You can judge the sort of woman she is, Topper—the terribleness of her. She claims that we're not married any more and that anything goes just because we were bumped off. How's that for depravity. Not that I care. The line said, 'until death do us part.' Well, as a matter of fact death didn't us part. And so there you are. Tell her how silly she is, Topper."
"It's a delicate point for an outsider to settle," Mr. Topper cautiously replied. "Suppose we go for a ride. It's rather trying to be listening to the pair of you squabbling all over the landscape."
"All right, let's forget it," Kerby agreed. "Come, Marion. Topper's right."
"Just the same it isn't legal any more," said Marion. "I want Topper to understand that."
"Are you both in?" asked Mr. Topper. "All set," replied Kerby.
"No funny stuff now," warned Mr. Topper as he started the car. "I've had a hard day, a terrible day. I'd like to have a good time."
"You would?" cried Kerby. "Then let me take the wheel. Marion drove last time. I've got a great idea."
"Frankly, I mistrust your ideas," said Mr. Topper, but rather than be sat on I'll let you take the wheel."
"He's all right," Marion said in a reassuring voice. "Especially when he has an idea. For a fool he's funny that way. Slide over to me."
As Mr. Topper slid over the car gathered speed. Once more he let his eyes wander over the sunken plain. It was smooth and green and peaceful, and it was bathed in a subdued light which recalled to Mr. Topper's mind a certain matchless Easter egg he had once possessed in the days of his youth. It was made of sugar and tastefully decorated with pink confection. The egg was hollow and there was a piece of glass set in a peephole at one end. Mr. Topper had applied his eyes to this peephole and he had never quite forgotten the beauty of the scene on which he had gazed. Never on earth could he catch again such completely satisfying beauty. Never would he meet such a shepherdess or see such lamb-like lambs. The sunken plain had some of the romance of that Easter egg. He felt like running across the dipping meadows in search of his lost shepherdess. Perhaps she was waiting for him in the woods on the other side. The woods looked cool and interesting. They ran away along the skyline like the mysterious fringe of a new life. Mr. Topper keenly appreciated this spot. It had something to do with him. For the moment he forgot that he was sitting between all that remained of George and Marion Kerby. As on the previous occasion, his mind now dropped into a dim repose which was lined with green and tinted by the glowing rays of the sun. Romance was close at hand, but before it could come any closer Mr. Topper's repose was shattered by an alarming report from the automobile and an oath from George Kerby.
"Damn it!" said Kerby. "A puncture." Mr. Topper looked helplessly about as the car came to a sudden stop.
"What do we do now?" he asked. "I don't know the first thing about changing a tyre."
"But I do," Kerby replied briskly. "Don't worry your head about it. You and Marion get out and sit down somewhere. I'll be finished in ten minutes. You've got a brand new spare all loaded and everything."
"Come on, Cosmo," said Marion. "Let's crouch in the grass and leer at George. He's good with tyres and corks."
With a feeling of relief Mr. Topper abandoned his car. He felt really grateful to George Kerby. In spite of his reputation there must be some good in the young devil. He did not appear to be afraid of hard work. He was as willing as the next to soil his hands in disagreeable toil. Mr. Topper idly wondered if spirits ever washed their hands. What with, if so? Just the same George Kerby was decidedly helpful in an emergency.
To Mr. Topper a punctured tyre was an emergency of the first order.
"You'd better follow me," said Mr. Topper, "because I can't follow you. When I come to a place you like just let me know."
"This will do," she announced when they came to a smooth, grassy space near the roadside. "Let's seethe here like a pair of indolent worms. Do you like seething?"
Topper hardly knew. He had never tried it.
"Wallowing is more in my line," he remarked. "I'm afraid I'm not built for seething, as you call it. Too fat."
"It's easy for me to seethe," she went on, and from the direction of her voice she was lying at Mr. Topper's feet. "All I do is wriggle a hole in space and curl up."
This sounded horrible to Mr. Topper, but he made no reply as he lowered himself to the grass, his mind and body occupied with the grace and agility of his descent.
"Do you find it pleasant the way you are?" he began in a conversational voice after he had carefully arranged himself.
"How do you mean?" asked Marion. "Being a spirit," replied Topper.
"It's rather thin at times," she said, "but fortunately I'm not always this way."
"No?" said Mr. Topper with a rising inflection. "Oh, no," she answered. "Sometimes I'm quite different."
"How?" Topper bluntly demanded.
"I materialise," she said. "I get thick like you, only not quite so thick, if you get what I mean."
"I'm afraid I do," Mr. Topper replied. "You mean that it would be impossible to achieve my state of thickness. Go on."
"I didn't mean that at all," she said. "Don't be a zug."
"Don't be a what?" he demanded.
"A zug," she replied.
"What's that?" he asked.
"It's my name for a person who doesn't act the way he feels," answered Marion.
"Oh, you mean a gentleman," said Topper. "Well, if I acted the way I felt I probably wouldn't be here now."
"I'd probably be in jail for wife-beating or arson or poisoning wells," Mr. Topper said thoughtfully. "I've felt like doing all those things to-day."
"I rather suspected you were down on your luck," Marion answered emphatically. "Poor old Topper!"
"If you must be good to me," replied Mr. Topper, "try to be practical about it. Don't get me into any more scrapes like the last time. Don't giggle at people and don't fight with your husband. Emotional people are bad enough, but emotional spirits are impossible. That's that. Now tell me what you meant when you said that at times you were quite different."
"It's like this," she began. "We are what you might call low-planed spirits, George and myself." Topper nodded appreciatively.
"I can well understand that," he said.
"We are authentic spirits," she continued. "Quite authentic, but still low-planed."
"And no doubt you rejoice in it," put in Mr. Topper.
"We do," said Marion, "particularly after what we've seen of the high ones."
"Death has changed you little," remarked Mr. Topper.
"That's exactly what I tell George," replied Marion. "If anything it's made him worse. You wouldn't believe it if I told you, but that man is actually mad. I wouldn't admit it while I was alive, but now with a lot of space on my hands . . ."
"You were telling me about low-planed spirits," interrupted Mr. Topper.
"Oh, yes," she said. "Well, low-planed spirits to keep well must have a certain amount of ectoplasm. High-planed spirits don't need it, wouldn't know what to do with it, but low-planed spirits must have their ectoplasm."
"Do they serve it in glasses?" asked Mr. Topper.
"All things you cannot be told," Marion replied, "but it's like time with you. We can squander it or use it wisely just as we please. It doesn't matter. We get so much ectoplasm and no more. They're strict about it. Just to show you. George went to the races last month. He'd been saving up his allotment. He loves races. That's why, according to vital statistics, we're officially deceased. Well, this track was down south. George went there and no one recognised him at first. Even when they did they acted as if they hadn't. People are funny that way. They hate to be disillusioned. That's why so few of us ever come back. George cleaned up on the horses. Whenever he wanted to place a bet he faded out and listened to the wise ones. George knows where to listen. But the money got the best of him. He started in drinking and didn't stop until his ectoplasm had run out. About 2 week later he came back to me with a terrible hangover and a sad story about a twenty-dollar bill he hadn't been able to spend because no one had the nerve to pluck it from the air. He said that he had wandered over several counties with that twenty-dollar bill until he got so sick of it he threw it away. Since then he's been saving his ectoplasm. I've got a lot of it, but I never feel like using it. I'm afraid I'm becoming high-planed, but I might be persuaded to materialise for you."
"Don't trouble yourself," said Mr. Topper hastily. "Some other time. I've had a particularly hard day. Don't upset me."
Marion Kerby laughed. Topper liked her laugh.
"I wonder what sort of a little boy you were," she said, musingly.
"Not much of a sort," Mr. Topper admitted. "A pretty poor type of little boy. I messed around a lot and didn't go right or wrong. I think I must have been rather an unofficial little boy."
"And what did you plan to become?" she asked.
Mr. Topper looked uneasily around him. He had a strange feeling that a pair of lovely eyes were floating in the air. It was like being lost in a fog with a strange, but desirable, person.
"I never got so far as planning," he said in a low voice, "but I wanted to be an actor."
"And no one encouraged you?" Marion Kerby's voice was equally low. There was a deep, feminine quality in it which to Mr. Topper was more intimate than a caress, more tender than a smile. The sound of her voice fortified him against all the perils of life. Everything could go to smash as long as that voice continued. He could sink to the sunless depth of a lonely sea with the memory of such a voice still living in his ears.
"One person encouraged me," he replied. "A drunken uncle. He gave me a book."
"What kind of a book?" asked Marion.
"It was a very thorough book," replied Mr. Topper. "It's old now, of course, and no doubt there are better books to-day, but this one had recitations in it, and photographs that showed you how to do Hate and Fear and Modesty and Surprise and practically all the emotions."
Unconsciously Mr. Topper pressed his hands to his cheeks and did Surprise. The effect was startling, but he failed to realise how startling it was until he found himself staring into the eyes of three seemingly fascinated bystanders who had quietly gathered from nowhere. It was an interesting grouping. Mr. Topper appeared to be leading a class in dramatic elocution. His pupils were registering the most eloquent surprise. Mr. Topper's expression congealed.
"I'm rehearsing for an act," he explained, with a hesitating smile.
The first young farmer looked at the second young farmer and the second young farmer looked at the third, then all three looked at Mr. Topper and Mr. Topper looked away.
"I'm rehearsing," he repeated in an obstinate voice. "Go away."
But the youthful group held its ground. Mr. Topper was on the point of doing Fury with extras when he saw the spare tyre of the automobile neatly detach itself from the rack and roll jauntily up to the denuded wheel. Then he saw the flat tyre wobble over the ground and with a delicate leap attach itself to the rack. Topper's eyes turned to glass. He was no longer able to register his emotions, but the features of the three young farmers were contorted with amazement. They could find no comforting explanation for the purposefully acting tyres. And when they saw a wrench performing masterful revolutions in the air they decided to go somewhere else to think things over. With great speed and with admirable solidarity they departed. Nothing could have separated them. Mr. Topper breathed a sigh of relief as they disappeared in single file formation. Like the three witches in Macbeth, they were destined to appear later at an equally unpropitious moment in Mr. Topper's life.
"You're splendid!" exclaimed Marion Kerby before he could voice his woe. "Prepare to be hugged."
For an instant Mr. Topper presented the appearance of a man with a stiff neck, whereas in reality he was resting his troubled head on Marion Kerby's surprisingly adequate breast. It was just for an instant, but Mr. Topper never quite succeeded in ridding himself of the memory.
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