|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|
The Jovial Ghosts
The Misadventures of Topper
KERBY'S destination was shadowed by the woods. It was an old abandoned inn, lying far back from the roadway in the arms of its guardian trees. Like a royal drunkard, spent by years of purple debauchery, the ancient structure wearily settled down among the trees and listened to tales of vanished splendour drifting through the branches overhead. Hard days had fallen on the inn. It attracted no longer now the flower of the land. Laughter warmed its heart no more and the silvery chiming of goblets filled with honest liquor was forever stilled. And the great paunch-like cellar of the inn was empty. Gone the bottles that flashed beneath the lamplight. Gone the stout old soul who used to carry the lamp. Even the smell of the place was different. The inspiriting fragrance of old wine had been subtracted from the air, leaving it flat and dead. The spiders, too, had lost caste. There was not a cork to cling to, only empty bins that had once contained the mellow yield of distant vineyards stepping up the hillside to the sun that had given them life.
The inn was built on sandy soil. The sea had once been there. If you looked between the trees at moonlight you could see white patches of sand lying in the woods. And if you stood quite still and listened to the wind thrumming through the pines you could catch an echo of waves falling on vanished beaches. The sea had once been there. The rhythm of its surf still lingered in the air and the healing tang of its salt blended with the smell of pine. All was silent in the woods. Nobody ever came to them now. No couples flitted across the patches, no whispering voices were heard among the trees.
Mr. Topper stood on the back veranda of the inn and gazed into the woods. A breeze, fresh and soothing, filled with a lonesome fragrance, brought peace and a strange excitement to his heart. He felt happy and almost young. He had forgotten about his stomach. It was as if he had withdrawn from the old life and was digging with his toes in new and magic soil. How unreal and far away Mrs. Topper seemed. How delightfully remote from him was everyone he knew. Only Scollops retained her personality. Mr. Topper wanted his cat. Scollops would have loved this place. She would have approved of the rambling old inn with its soft, brown shingles and its long veranda broken by sun-filled angles, ideally arranged for a quiet nap, a warm, sensuous, sun-bathed nap. And Scollops would have found many interesting things in the woods. Mr. Topper unconsciously possessed one of the rarest and most precious faculties of the memory, a graphic and olfactory sense of childhood. He could visualise Scollops stalking between the trees, enter into her little, but intense, curiosities, and smell the things she smelled. There were grasshoppers and ant-hills and exciting holes in the trees. What a place for Scollops! Mr. Topper let his eyes travel along the weather-browned side of the old inn. Far away in the distance the checker-board fields cupped down to an indolent river. Mr. Topper did not know the name of the river. He was equally ignorant of its beginning and its end. These things were matters of small importance to Mr. Topper. He did know, however, that the river added another touch of beauty to the landscape. It garnished the general effect. Curving out in a great leisurely horseshoe, it moved between smooth banks, and here and there a tree or two had crept up to its brink to gaze at its pretty limbs in the flowing mirror below. The sky swept down over the world and dropped behind the stepping hills, on the highest of which rose the turrets of a castle dating back as far as 1922. Under ordinary circumstances Mr. Topper would have become involved in calculations regarding the probable cost of building such a place, but to-day he was content to accept it as a part of the scene that was filling his eyes with beauty.
"You like it here," said a quiet voice behind him. "What makes your eyes so sad?"
"I didn't know they were sad," replied Mr. Topper, with an uneasy smile. "Perhaps they've looked too long on desk tops and plumbing and legs of lamb. Perhaps they've looked on loveliness too late."
"Perhaps they've looked on loveliness too late," Marion Kerby softly repeated. "The world does wicked things to us with its success and routine and morality. Topper, it either cheats us with wealth or numbs us with want, steals away from us all the colour and wonder of being alive, the necessary useless things. Only savages and children do proper honour to the sun, and children soon grow up into perfectly rational—"
"Toppers," interrupted Mr. Topper rather bitterly. "I know what you're thinking. Those white duck trousers. I never wore them again, not since the day you said they looked self-conscious."
There was a flash of laughter in the air and Mr. Topper felt a small hand brush lightly across the top of his.
"There was something wonderful about those trousers," she said. "Something pitiful, too. Do you know what I mean?"
"Perfectly," replied Mr. Topper. "The pitiful part was me."
"No," she continued. "I mean that they expressed in a futile way the desire to be dashing and picturesque, the need to slip a little beyond life. They were the starched symbol of rebellion. I liked you the moment I saw you in those white duck trousers. You were shifting from foot to foot, rather guiltily, I thought."
"Don't go on about those trousers," Mr. Topper pleaded. "Try to forget that I ever wore them."
"If it will make you feel any better," Marion said comfortingly, "I'll try to forget that you ever wore any trousers at all."
"You don't have to go so far as that," he replied. "You and your husband have taken my dignity, I have only my decency left."
"Look!" exclaimed Marion. "The sun is sinking behind the castle. How fine it is!"
Topper took a deep breath. His very being seemed to merge with the crazy-quilt of colours streaming across the low sky.
"It is fine," he said. "The way it fans out above the towers makes me think of Ivanhoe. I don't know why. There was a girl in it named Rebecca. She was always jumping out of windows."
"Well, the Rebecca living in that castle isn't jumping out of any windows," said George Kerby jarringly, his voice coming from the doorway of the inn. "You couldn't even push the old woman through. She's fat, quarrelsome, and very rich. Always falling in love with her gardeners. That's why she loses them all the time. She's too tough a bud even for a gardener to pick."
"George, dear," Marion remarked in her sweetest voice, "you always sound the right note at sunset. It's a part of your irresistible charm. You're so deliciously low at all times."
"Oh, so that's it," replied Kerby. "I'm not too low to be collecting wood for a fire. While you two have been idling out here detracting from the natural beauty of the scene, I've been looking for stuff to keep you warm outside and in. I've been useful and busy while you've been useless and—and—"
"Indolent, supine or loutish," suggested Marion. "Take your choice."
"You're awfully funny," Kerby retorted.
"Please go away and continue being useful and busy," said his wife.
"All right," answered Kerby in a sulky voice, "but if Topper wants anything to drink he'd better tear himself away from that meagre-looking sunset and help me hunt. I've a good idea that the law didn't know all the ropes of this cafeteria."
Topper obediently turned from the sunset. He would much rather have remained with Marion to watch the evening die, but Kerby was a man demanding a man's co-operation in an enterprise that smacked of devilishness. Topper felt that he could not afford to be found wanting. There was something rugged and masculine about leaving a sunset flat to go in search of drink. He would show Marion Kerby that he was as game for a good time as the next one.
"Are you coming, Marion?" asked Kerby. "Not now," she replied.
"Come on, Topper," said George Kerby briskly; then in a lower voice, "If we find anything to drink we'll jolly well help ourselves before we let her know."
He nudged Topper in the ribs and Topper sprang back, startled.
"Pardon me," he said. "I must have been crowding you."
"No," he replied, "I'm merely over-eager. I'm a dead man parched for a drink, an intangible body with a palpable thirst. Search diligently, Topper. We must find a bottle."
Kerby's voice trailed away across the twilight of the inn. Topper heard things moving about, felt clouds of dust descending upon his head, saw empty boxes sliding mysteriously through the gloom, and in the midst of this he stood unmoved. The room had taken possession of him. He looked about like a tourist in a tomb.
The vague, slanting roof extending above his head was filled with ancient dusk solidified by cross-beams, great reaching things, rough-hewn and low. High up in a pointed section of the wall a small window strained through its dirty panes the departing light of day. The little shaft of yellow light sifting through the darkness fingered a yawning fireplace, filled with bits of wood and dusted white with blown ashes. From where Topper stood the room on either side of him ran on forever into shadows. Cross-beams and shadows and ebbing daylight—Topper absorbed these elements, but was unable to blend them harmoniously in his mind. He was like a man in a dream, quite willing to accept, but unable to explain.
And as he stood there, in the great dark room, the wood in the fireplace suddenly sprang into flame. Waves of red sparkled over the stones and warmth carved a pocket in the dampness of the place. The cross-beams, caught in the glow of the firelight, twisted and swam in the quivering parade of the flames. Shadows that had once been dead came back to life and trembled rhythmically on the floor. The old inn seemed to sigh and find itself, like a man waxing expansive after a long period of rigorous domestic hypocrisy. Topper edged up to the fireplace and absorbed reassurance from its warmth. He had a feeling that something was taking place in the room, something very near him. An unseen person was breathing heavily almost at Mr. Topper's feet.
"Topper!" exclaimed a strained voice as a square section of the flooring flew open. "Topper, my heart's blood, the world is ours."
Firelight fell into the aperture disclosed by the lifted boards. Little jets of flame danced redly on deep green glass. Golden fire-beams trickled through jackets of spotted straw and girdled the liveried necks of ancient bottles. A box emerged from the pocket and cut a path through the dust. With a business-like snap the board settled back into place. Mr. Topper gave a slight start, then smiled nervously in the general direction of his invisible accomplice.
"You've found a lot, haven't you?" said Mr. Topper with false enthusiasm.
"I've a good mind to materialise just for to-night," muttered Kerby in a preoccupied voice.
Mr. Topper drew a quick breath. From where he was standing he had an excellent view of this much discussed phenomenon. It was, if anything, a trifle too excellent a view to suit Mr. Topper. He would have preferred to have witnessed it from the back row of a crowded hall.
"Why," he thought to himself, "should I of all people be privileged to undergo such unpleasant experiences when thousands of spirit hunters would gladly take my place? Why was not Sir Conan Doyle selected? I am not the man."
Mr. Topper stopped asking himself questions. He became incapable of self-interrogation. An appalling thing was taking place before his eyes. George Kerby's legs were appearing, quietly and without undue haste, but nevertheless his legs were quite unmistakably appearing. Mr. Topper began to shiver as if caught in a chill wind. With perfect self-possession and unconcern the legs arched up from the floor. With dilated eyes Mr. Topper followed the ribs in the golf stockings and dwelt reluctantly on the criss-cross pattern of the trousers. No detail of those legs escaped him. Years after he could have modelled them in clay. Then, quite suddenly, he realised that another section had been added to the legs. It was the central and after part of George Kerby's anatomy. In a thoroughly detached manner it was flaunting itself in the air. Mr. Topper's feet began to shuffle wistfully. They wanted to go to the door and be let out, but, before they had time to obey this impulse, they clung to the floor like expiring flounders. Mr. Topper was gazing into George Kerby's face, gazing into it, not as Mr. Topper would have liked, but in a peculiarly upsetting way. Kerby's face was oddly suspended between his legs, and it was upside down. Mr. Topper had no precedent to follow. Not even in a side-show had he ever seen a face placed in such a novel position, but this fact seemed to make no difference to the face, for it smiled up at Topper as gaily as if it had been in its conventional location. The wide-mouthed, inverted smile nearly did for Mr. Topper. He found himself unable to return it.
"Oh, dear," he said, moving back, "oh, dear me, is that the way you're going to be?"
"What way do you mean?" demanded the face, its mouth wagging snappily in a manner most horrifying to Mr. Topper.
"The way you are," muttered Mr. Topper. "You know. Is it always going to be like this?"
"Now what the devil's got into you?" asked Kerby, rising to his full height and confronting the troubled Topper with a bottle in either hand. "Can't a man bend over?"
"My mistake," replied Mr. Topper, licking his dry lips. "I thought that probably you'd sprained your back in the accident and that..."
Kerby cut him short with a laugh and moved over to the fireplace.
"You still believe in ghost stories, I see," he said, good-humouredly. "Well, I'm all here, every inch of me. Never felt better in my life. Shake. I'm glad you see me."
"I'm overjoyed I do," replied Mr. Topper, gingerly accepting the proffered hand. "Would you mind opening one or both of those bottles? A drop of something would help a lot."
"Topper, I love you," whispered Kerby, hurrying away in the gloom.
Topper looked consideringly after the retreating figure. He found it rather hard to accept Kerby in his materialised form after having with great difficulty become reconciled to his voice. Topper felt that there was a lamentable lack of stability in his relationship with George and Marion Kerby. They should be either one thing or the other, but certainly not both. It required too swift and radical an adjustment of the mind to be talking with space at one moment and the next to be shaking hands with a perfectly tangible body. After all, a person could absorb only a certain limited number of shocks in a lifetime. Mr. Topper felt that he had already absorbed his full quota.
With the firelight at his back, Topper, his eyes now grown adjusted to the darkness, looked about the room. At one end he saw a gathering of shadowy tables, one table carrying the other on its back as though retreating from the field with a wounded comrade. The legs of the wounded tables formed a forest in the darkness. At the other end of the room a huge, many-caverned sideboard flattened its rugged back defiantly against the wall and waited. It was a sideboard that would stand just so much and no more. After the limit had been reached all the prohibition agents in the world would be unable to make it budge. One more indignity, another outrageously intimate searching of its secret recesses might cause it to fly from the wall and fall on its tormentors. Like the last of the barons it stood guard over the desecrated inn. Dust covered its honourable veneer with a delicate pall, but the old sideboard remained at its post and guarded the room it had so often seen filled with the revellers of a freer generation.
George Kerby was standing in front of the side-board, diligently rummaging through its drawers. As Topper watched the deftly searching hands he decided that Kerby was bereft of fear and respect. Certainly, no ordinary person could thus casually search through such an imposing piece of furniture. With a low exclamation of satisfaction, Kerby left the sideboard and returned to the fireplace with a corkscrew in one hand and two glasses in the other.
"Hold these," he said, giving Topper the glasses, "but don't make any noise. Marion's really childish about nature. If we don't disturb her she'll blither around outside all night and let us peacefully fill our skins."
With professional skill he extracted the cork from one of the bottles, then filled the glasses and politely extended one of them to Mr. Topper, who was extremely glad to receive it. He was honestly convinced that if any man in the world deserved a drink, he, Topper, was that man. Kerby emptied his glass at a gulp and pulled a couple of boxes within range of the fire's warmth.
"Take it easy, Topper," he said. "This Scotch is worth a couple of yards of ectoplasm. Do you get drunk?"
Topper, emerging with a brilliant colour from his glass, paused before answering the question. A swift, rollicking revolution accompanied by a pleasant tingling sensation was taking place within him. He felt himself growing lighter and less material. Perhaps he was going to disappear altogether. That would be splendid. Then he would be a spirit, too, like George and Marion Kerby.
"Never had much chance," he replied, "but I did get drunk once. No one noticed it, so I didn't have much fun. They were all so stuffy at the party. The kind that know when they've had just enough. Then they become heavily jolly and wink at each other with wise eyes. I went to sleep in a hammock. Mrs. Topper doesn't like drinking. It makes her nervous. I suppose you get drunk most of the time?"
Kerby replenished the glasses before he answered.
"Whenever I get the chance," he said. "Marion says I'm never sober. And she sticks to it, but of course she exaggerates. The moment I take a drink she begins to remind me about the last time and helps me along by auto-suggestion."
"It's really too bad about women," Mr. Topper answered sympathetically. "They don't seem to have any sense of proportion at all. If Mrs. Topper should walk into the room right now I'd be forced to speak to her quite pointedly to keep her from raising a row. But I've never beaten her," he went on thoughtfully. "Not yet, I haven't. Thanks, Kerby. This Scotch is delicious. Do you feel like dancing?"
Kerby quickly looked up from his drink. Mr. Topper appeared to be perfectly normal. He was sitting solidly on his box and gazing into the fireplace.
"Do I feel like what?" Kerby demanded.
"Dancing, George," replied Mr. Topper in a reasonable voice. "Dancing or singing."
"Certainly not," said Kerby, shortly.
"That's odd," replied Mr. Topper. "I seem to."
"Well, don't do it," Kerby commanded. "You'll spoil everything."
"Then let's each have a bottle of our own," suggested Mr. Topper. "It will seem more abandoned."
"Drink up this one first," said Kerby.
Mr. Topper promptly extended his empty glass.
"Listen, George," he asked humbly, "if I just sit quietly here by the fire and feel like dancing it will be all right, won't it?"
"But don't let your feeling get the best of you," admonished Kerby. "We're all set for a good party."
"I suppose you're a pretty swell dancer," Mr. Topper said rather moodily after a short silence. "I dare say you know all about roadhouses and gay parties and the latest steps and everything like that."
"What's got into Topper?" Kerby demanded. "Why are you so broken-hearted about dancing?"
"Oh, I don't know," Mr. Topper replied, resting his chin on his hands and staring into the flames. "I've passed up all the good things of life, the dancing and the singing and the drinking. I haven't had any good times at all. I've had a sad life, George. You can't imagine how terribly sad my life has been. I've only one friend in the world and she sleeps all the time. You ought to get to know Scollops, George. She's a good cat."
A tear trickled down Mr. Topper's glowing cheek.
"Open another bottle," he said in a broken voice. "Open two."
George Kerby was a creature of quick sympathies. The sight of Mr. Topper in tears moved him profoundly. In the presence of his companion's sorrow his rude humour deserted him. He was plunged into grief. Getting up from his box, he came over to Mr. Topper and placed an arm round his shoulder.
"Don't cry, Topper," he said. "I've had a sad life, too. At the age of five I lost both my parents. Then I was struck down in the prime of life. Look at me."
Mr. Topper tearfully looked at him.
"Then you're an orphan, too," said Mr. Topper.
Kerby bowed his head.
"By all means make it two bottles," continued Mr. Topper. "The occasion calls for it." Kerby hurried over to the box.
"That's a funny thing," he remarked, returning with the bottles. "There were twelve bottles of Scotch in that case when we found it and now there are only eight. These two and the one we had make three. Where's the other one got to?"
"Maybe you left it about some place," replied Mr. Topper as he wiped away his tears and smiled upon the bottles. "We'll come across it later on. Let's be thankful for what we have."
For several minutes they sipped their drinks in silence; then Mr. Topper suggested timidly: "Perhaps you wouldn't mind if I danced quietly around on tiptoe. You can give me some pointers, seeing we're both orphans."
Fearing that Mr. Topper might once more break into tears, Kerby reluctantly consented.
"Do it nice and easy," he warned. "Don't fall down or knock anything over."
Topper finished his drink and arose with purpose.
"Now this is the way I waltz," he explained, spreading his arms and gliding away in the darkness with surprising agility. "Are you watching me, George?"
A humming noise floated through the air. Mr. Topper was supplying his own music. As he revolved through the firelight on the first turn around the room his body was swaying alluringly from the hips, and his arms, rising and falling airily, gave him the appearance of a large bird in fastidious flight. George Kerby watched Mr. Topper with growing astonishment. Evidently the poor chap's soul had taken wings. It must have been starved for dancing.
"How am I doing?" breathed Topper as he once more passed through the firelight.
"It's beautiful!" whispered Kerby. "Didn't know it was in you."
"Do you like it?" said Topper in a pleased voice, as he circled into outer darkness.
Kerby's spontaneous praise awoke in Mr. Topper a desire to be worthy of it. Accordingly he redoubled his exertions. His feet flew over the floor and his arms stirred up whirlpools of life in the shadows. A chair got in his way, but he kicked it aside without losing a step. It fell clattering in a corner and Kerby cried out:
"Stop, it, Topper. You've danced enough."
But Topper was deaf to Kerby's entreaties. His blood was up. He was both surprised and delighted. It was like a dream in which one found oneself riding a bicycle with the utmost ease and confidence.
"Will you stop ricocheting around the room like the Dancing Faun of Praxiteles?" asked Kerby, threateningly.
Like a blooded horse Topper continued his maddened flight. His veins were quick with Scotch and his imagination fired with a new realisation of the rapture of motion. Nothing could stop him now save forcible intervention. This was supplied by the revengeful chair. Mr. Topper still contends that the thing sprang at his legs, deliberately tripped him and hurled him to the floor. However this may be, the chair put an end to Mr. Topper's dancing. Like a spent lizard he uncoiled himself from the courageous piece of furniture and returned to the fireplace.
"That's how I waltz," he said, looking anxiously at Kerby. "How was it, George?"
"The most convincing demonstration I'veever witnessed," replied Kerby. "You deserve a drink."
"It's so good of you to like my dancing," said Mr. Topper with becoming modesty as he swallowed what he deserved. "You know I think I could learn how to live. I can drink all right and I can dance pretty well. Now about singing—let's try a song."
"Let's," said a voice from the cross-beams. "Why not?"
Topper and Kerby regarded each other uneasily, then Kerby hastily took another drink and Topper, with doglike fidelity, followed his example.
"I was an orphan at nine minutes past eight of a blue Monday in the great blizzard of 1891," continued the voice. "And what's worse, after all the weary years I'm still an orphan."
"It's Marion," groaned George, setting down his glass. "I wonder how long she's been there."
Topper looked up at the cross-beams and became partially sober. On one of the cross-beams an angel, or a woman who gave every indication of being an angel, was reclining. The angel had Marion Kerby's eyes. Topper was sure of this. The angel also had a bottle, the contents of which she was transferring to a glass. As Mr. Topper watched this dangerous operation he shivered for her safety. The angel dexterously sipped her drink and began to speak in a voice that was far from angelic.
"So you thought I'd blither around outside all night," she said, "while you acquired a skin-full, gentle George, deceitful George, drunken Topper!"
"She's heard every word we said," muttered Kerby under his breath.
Topper took a drink and looked defiantly at the angel. All his married life he had been quietly insulted by his own wife, but in his present mood he objected to being insulted by another man's wife.
"Chase her down, George," he said. "She's calling me names."
"Why don't you come up and get me, you drunken dervish?" challenged the angel, sticking her tongue out at Mr. Topper.
Topper blinked his eyes and looked up as if he were going to bark at her.
"I refuse to be called a drunken dervish," he said with dignity.
"Well, that's what you are," replied the angel calmly. "And George is an unsuccessful little snipe."
"Don't mind her, Topper," said Kerby, with resignation. "That's where the other bottle went. I should have known it all the time. What are you doing up there, Marion?"
"Loathing a couple of orphans," she replied.
"But why the funny disguise?" he asked. "You look awful in that outfit. Why not your usual regalia?"
"I had planned to impress your twin orphan until I discovered how depraved he was," she answered. "His name should be Toper instead of Topper. But let's see. Topper rhymes with cropper." She began to laugh, then stopped suddenly and recited in a tantalising voice: "Topper, Topper, the big grasshopper, tried to dance and came a cropper. How's that, Cosmo?"
Mr. Topper was stung to the quick. His recent triumph was being held up to ridicule.
"I don't like it," he said, seating himself heavily on his box. "It's very poor, very poor indeed.. Furthermore, you seem to be drinking yourself, so how can you talk?"
"Less thickly than you, plump orphan," she replied.
"Kerby," said Mr. Topper in an offended voice, "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to request your wife not to talk to me any more. I can well understand why you drove her into a tree. With such a wife heroic methods are the only way out. Use your influence. If you haven't any, beat her."
"All right, all right," replied Kerby, his resistance yielding to his alcoholic contents. "Anything for peace. I'll talk to her."
"Topper wants to sing," he began mildly. "We'll all sing. Come on down, Marion, and make friends."
Marion looked suspiciously at her husband. "You'll take my bottle," she said.
"If you think I'm capable of such a trick you can roost up there all night," Kerby replied haughtily as he returned to the fireplace.
"But how am I going to get down?" the angel asked in a more reasonable voice.
"How did you get up there to begin with?" demanded Kerby.
"I materialised here for safety's sake," she said.
If you were any kind of a spirit," interposed Mr. Topper, "you'd let go and float down like a zephyr."
"And if you were any kind of a man you'd let me float down on top of you," she replied.
Mr. Topper accepted the challenge. Swaying slightly as he walked, he maneuvered himself to a position directly under the cross-beam on which the white figure was reclining. As he stood there with outstretched arms he looked like the statue of a grieving father pleading with his young. Marion Kerby laughed.
"I'm waiting," said Mr. Topper.
George Kerby poured out a drink and regarded the scene with happy detachment. All the parties in his life returned to him. He remembered impossible situations and dwelt lovingly on them. Things as silly as this he had seen, had been a part of, had played, perhaps, the leading rôle. He shrugged his shoulders and laughed without much merriment. Pageants of past escapades passed before his eyes.
"Hurry up, Marion," he called out. "Topper's waiting."
Without a moment's hesitation, Marion Kerby slipped from the cross-beam and descended on Mr. Topper's aggressively upturned face. After several seconds of Homeric indecision, he decided to give up the struggle and to accompany his charge to the floor. It was hardly a matter of choice with Mr. Topper. Marion Kerby's weight bore him to the echoing planks, whereon he lay concealed beneath a smother of celestial raiment.
"I'm dying," he groaned in a muffed voice. "Drag this woman off."
"A fat man has his uses," Marion Kerby remarked, carefully picking her way across Mr. Topper's stomach.
"Had I known you were going to say that," he managed to get out of him, "I'd have given you the shock of your life. Help me up, George, I'm crippled."
When Mr. Topper had been restored to his seat he looked across at Marion Kerby sitting opposite him on a box near the fireplace. She was clinging to her bottle and looking watchfully about her. There was something in her bearing that reminded Mr. Topper of a defiant child at a party at which none of the other children wanted to play with her. She was prepared for the slightest hostile move. Her little face was filled with resolution and glowing colour, and her eyes were bright and darting like those of an inquisitive young bird. The white robe floating about her made her small head, appearing so bravely above it, seem a little lost and pathetic. Mr. Topper decided that the robe was not a success. Marion Kerby had never been intended for an angel. She was far too alert and human, and a trifle too suspicious.
"Well, if I looked silly in white duck trousers," he announced, "you certainly take the cake in that. It does my heart good to see you look such a fright."
Marion Kerby gazed at him out of her large, serious eyes, then most surprisingly her lips began to tremble and she buried her head in her lap. Stifled sobs issued from the folds of her robe. Mr. Topper experienced a strange sensation. It was one of triumph and alarm, but as the sobs continued with unabated anguish he began to feel sorry for his unkind remark.
"Give her another bottle, George," he suggested.
"Don't want another bottle," she replied without looking up.
"Then give it to me," said Mr. Topper. "I can't stand hearing her make that noise. Do something about it, George."
Kerby tried to put his arm around his wife, but she flung it off angrily.
"You go 'way from me," she sobbed. "I never made fun of his trousers, although God knows they were funny enough, and now he calls me a fright simply because I tried to dress up like an angel for him."
"I'm sorry, Marion," said Mr. Topper. "I was only fighting back, honestly I was. Let's take a drink and make up. We were good friends this evening."
She raised her head and looked at Mr. Topper's troubled face. He smiled at her and held out his arms. More than ever she appealed to him as a small child recovering from some devastating disappointment. This impression was heightened when he found her clinging to him and pressing her wet cheeks to his face. Mr. Topper swayed beneath this outburst of affection. For a moment he thought he had been attacked, but when he felt two soft lips kissing the lobe of his ear he concluded that the demonstration was of a peaceable nature.
"That's all right now," he said, thumping her back with the flat of his hand. "I was only getting back at you for calling me a plump orphan. It's true enough. I'll admit it."
George Kerby was regarding the scene with surprise.
"I say, Marion," he remarked, "don't you think that just shaking hands would he sufficiently convincing? This is a party, not an orgy, you know."
Marion laughed and sprang away from Mr. Topper.
He was such a penitent old sot," she explained. "I just had to hug him. Do you want one for yourself?"
Kerby submitted himself to her violence with the polished indifference of a tolerant husband.
"Now that that's over," he remarked, "we can all have a drink."
His suggestion was received with enthusiasm and acted upon several times. The crest of Mr. Topper's wave was on its downward curve. It had been an eventful night for him. He bowed several times in the direction of Marion Kerby, and at last in an excess of politeness he bowed himself off the box on to the floor, where he rested motionless on his nose. When he had been replaced by George and Marion Kerby, it was learned that he had been trying to ask Marion for the honour of a dance, but before she had time to accept his invitation he closed his eyes in sleep. Presently, however, he had a confused impression that he was flying through the colours of an evening sunset with an angel clasped in his arms. Two bright stars were looking into his eyes and two red lips, parted in a smile, were thrillingly close to his. An odour of Scotch whiskey filled the sky and made it friendly and stimulating. Mr. Topper breathed deeply. New vigour was returning to his body. The president of the bank was peering at him over the glistening edge of a burning cloud. The old man looked pained and puzzled. Mr. Topper gracefully blew the president a kiss and the venerable financier ducked behind his fleecy barrier. On another cloud, that resembled the platform of his station, Mr. Topper saw a group of people. They were holding an indignation meeting and pointing furiously at Mr. Topper, who, as he sailed by, made a vulgar gesture in their direction and laughed down at the angel. The members of the meeting fell screaming from the cloud and were lost in the darkness below, their cries of anguish drifting pleasantly up to his ears. Low down on the horizon Mr. Topper distinguished the pale eyes of his wife. They sent a path of reproach across the interweaving colours. He tried to look away, but the eyes clung to him. His anger mounted and he shook his fist at the eyes.
"Damn that leg of lamb!" he shouted. "I'm in love with Kerby's wife! "
"One minute," whispered the angel. "I must take a tuck in my ectoplasm. This dress is tripping me."
George Kerby, gazing over the rim of his glass into the dying embers of the fire, was oblivious of his surroundings. So Mr. Topper danced with the angel as the room grew dark. A visitor standing in the doorway of the inn would have seen nothing, but would have heard a soft, humming sound in the darkness and the scraping of flying feet. And had the visitor listened very closely he might have heard George Kerby pouring himself a drink and poking the cooling embers with the charred end of a stick. Little breezes sighed round the old inn and tiptoed along its rambling verandas. Like a cat closing a watchful eye the last red spark winked out.
|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|