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The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith


Local Historians Disagree

LATER that night, in a near-by village, Mr. Topper's automobile stopped aggressively in front of a cheerfully lighted drug store. This much has been established and freely admitted, but what follows has become complicated by a multiplicity of facts, furnished by various local historians, dealing at white heat with events still too vivid in their minds to be impartially recorded. In spite of this it is to these local historians that one must turn for further information, because, unfortunately, Mr. Topper alone of all the participants is unable to present his version. To be more accurate, it should be known that Mr. Topper had no version to present, his mind having ceased consciously to function some hours earlier in the evening.

The collected data are full of conflicting statements and unconsidered conclusions. Vanity and prejudice have as usual played havoc with the truth, and Mr. Topper's reputation has been tossed into a furnace of frantically wagging tongues. The druggist and his soda clerk are still in disagreement on many important points, and it is doubtful if anyone will ever agree with the chief of police, although many may sympathise with him. On one point, however, all are in complete accord, the point being that Mr. Topper was to blame for everything, and that, had it not been for him, the little village would have continued to lead its tranquil existence to the end of recorded time.

It seems, then, that around eleven o'clock in the evening, Mr. Topper, after driving with great speed down the main street of the town, stopped abruptly in front of a drug store in which were gathered the flower and youth of the neighbourhood. As witness to this fact we have three young rustic glee-singers, who, having finished their evening's singing, were comparing notes in the ruddy glow of the drug store window. It is to be regretted that these three gentlemen were merely the washed and oiled refinements of the farm hands who earlier in the day had been privileged to come upon Mr. Topper by the roadside in the act of doing Surprise. This incident had made a profound impression on their minds, and had only been forgotten for the more serious business of convincing various sceptical maidens that shadows and moonshine do not necessarily lead to perdition. The first glee-singer supplies the prelude. He is speaking to an attentive audience and he does not have to be cajoled to speak. He is saying:

"As soon as he staggered outer the orter I knew his face and I says to Joe, 'Damn if it ain't the same guy and he's still drunk.' Joe laughed right out loud because the guy had fallen down on the pavement and was sprawling there at our feet. Then the guy got up unsteady like and asked in an ugly voice just who had been doing all the laughing, and Joe in that comical way he has said that he had and that he was the mayor of the town and a lot of other funny things. Well, the guy didn't say much for a minute because he was brushing his trousers and looking at Joe, and Joe was about to give him a push so he would fall down and we could laugh some more, when the guy asks Joe in a dopy voice how he'd like to get a punch on the nose. At that Joe just laughed in his face, it was so comic, and Joe having such a good sense of humour, but before Joe had laughed much he stopped sudden because that guy had hauled off and hit him on the nose. Then Joe said, 'Come on, boys,' and we all pitched in and showed the guy just where he got off."

From this naively significant account of the opening of the hostilities it must be concluded that Mr. Topper's question concerning Joe's nose was purely rhetorical, as Joe was given hardly sufficient time in which to answer, and what little time he did have was wasted in ill-advised laughter. In his lust for action, Mr. Topper was perhaps at fault, but a plea for tolerance might be advanced on the ground that after all Joe was such a "comical feller" and for this reason, if for none other, deserved to have his nose punched whenever and wherever the opportunity conveniently offered itself to any public-spirited person.

Thus far Mr. Topper's actions have been traced up to the moment when he was borne down to the sidewalk beneath the combined weight of his opponents. Just what he did there will never be clearly known, for Mr. Topper was, of course, hidden, and the three young rustics refuse to tell. But according to the throng gathered inside the drug store, the cries issuing from the avengers of Joe's deflowered nose were so eloquent with anguish that everyone rushed to the door. It may be inferred then, not without reason, that Mr. Topper did as well, if not better, than could be expected of him under the rather trying circumstances.

The druggist, a person of authority and much unsavoury knowledge, adds his contribution to the history of this tremendous fray.

"As I was crowding there in the doorway," he is explaining to an absorbed group of loungers, "the strangest thing happened I ever saw in my life, and you've got to admit that we druggists see some mighty queer things."

This being admitted without the slightest opposition, the druggist proceeds:

"I'd have sworn on the stand that the automobile was empty. From where I was standing I could look right into it and see every inch of leather on the seats. There wasn't nobody there—nobody. They couldn't even have crouched. But as I was saying, I was crowding there in the doorway just where that dog is now and I was watching this out-of-town drunk getting what was coming to him when right out of the automobile swarm two people, an angel and a man in plus fours."

"Not a real angel," objects one of the loungers.

"Can't say about that," the druggist earnestly replies, "but she looked the part, flying robes and all. She didn't act like an angel though, except maybe an avenging one, but at that there was something about her different. Nobody but an angel could have been in so many places at once. She was the busiest party I ever saw. She and her friend with the plus fours on sort of took the boys by their legs and just naturally threw them away. Joe went some way up the street, and Fred went down, and Alf landed up against the hitching post, where he stayed looking quite natural with a sort of gentle smile on his face. Then the angel and her gentleman friend lifted up the drunk and pushed their way into the store, the angel cussing like mad and the man with the plus fours telling her not to mention names."

"When the three of them came in I was standing behind the counter," proclaims the soda clerk, rudely breaking in on his employer's story.

An imperceptible shifting of shoulders indicates that the centre of interest has been transferred to the boy.

"Well, I was that surprised and excited," he continues. "The angel walks up to the counter dragging the drunk with her and asks as cool and sweet as you please for some spirits of peppermint."

"You keep calling this angel her," breaks in one of the loungers. "Angels ain't neither one thing nor the other. That's why they're angels. Was this here angel a woman?"

"Sure," says the boy. "She had black silk stockings, thin ones, and she was a good looker to boot. 'Mix it up, Alonzo,' she says to me, 'and don't stint,' but before I could do any mixing the crowd came surging in."

"Thin ones,' remarks one of the listeners. "And black silk," says another.

"Some angel," puts in a third, rolling his eyes unpleasantly.

"And that's when the man with the plus fours on began to get gay with my siphons," the chemist hastens to explain. "When he saw the crowd coming at him, up he jumps on the counter with a bottle in each hand and lets loose two streams on the nearest heads. Everybody stopped and some went away, and the angel yelled after them, 'Come back here, you boll-weevils, a bath will do you no harm.' While this was going on, the drunk had got behind the counter and was playing with the soda taps. You'd have thought he was at a party, he was that pleased and satisfied. 'Look, George,' he kept calling out. 'See the damn thing fizz.' The man jumps down from the counter and says to the angel, 'Get him, kid, we've got to organise.' Then the angel collected the drunk and told him that they'd go somewhere else and have a lot of fun, and he suddenly came to life and made for the door, his head down and his arms swinging. And all the time he's yelling something about a leg of lamb he didn't seem to like. The angel and her friend with the plus fours on closed in on each side of him and the three of them charged through us to the street and got into the automobile and then they were copped."

It is generally admitted that the three of them were, as the chemist put it, copped. The method of copping is also a point of local harmony and is acclaimed as being nothing short of a stroke of sheer genius. The method, it must be admitted, was not without its more imposing features.

When Mr. Topper and his companions emerged from the drug store they found that their only means of escape had been more or less surrounded by several and various circles of civic activity. The Quoits Club was staunchly occupying the car. As a club it was none too cheerful. Around the automobile itself, in hushful alertness, marched the local fire brigade. This depressed body of manhood was comfortingly reinforced by an outer circle composed of the more active members of the Security Association. A rotary movement, far on the outskirts, dimly illuminated by a fiery signal, gave staunch assurance that the business element of the town was heartily, if not helpfully, endorsing the procedure. This latter organisation was making up in activity what it lacked in actual contact.

In the face of this display of civic co-operation neither Mr. Topper nor the Kerbys were convinced. They continued on. Like a splendid truth they denied facts. It has not been refuted that, on his way to the automobile, Mr. Topper assaulted and felled the chief of police and that the Kerbys scrambled over the body of the stricken man, cursing him vilely the while for being in their way. A submerged and vague-looking person, over whom the chief of police was chief, is responsible for this illuminating addition to the record of Mr. Topper's swift descent from the dead crater of suburban virtue:

"I was practising away on my clarinet, practising away like a good one, the Belvedere concert being only ten days off, when in rushes William, little William, you know, he's always rushing in, and he tells me that a riot has broke out in the town and that a couple of guys with an angel were smashing up the drug store. Well, I wasn't much set back by the riot, because I knew that if everybody in the town should get drunk or go mad at the same time there would still be plenty of room on the street for a quiet stroll, but the angel part of it did set me back. It did certainly set me back, that angel part of it."

To make this record strictly unbiassed it should be mentioned that the chief of police's staff was not the most popular young man in town. The only thing he could do was play the clarinet, and he did not do that badly enough to make him funny nor well enough to win him fame. When not engaged in playing or practising on the instrument of his choice he had an unfortunate way of making unconstructive observations about life in general and the town in particular, and these observations, in spite of their sincerity, did not add to the young man's popularity. His casual lack of faith in the town's ability to work up a first-class riot alienated from him even the sympathy of the most tolerant member of the community, and according to the wiser heads of the town his story should not be taken too seriously.

"So I put my music away," his story goes, "and I went out to take a look at this angel. Up by the chemist's it looked like a rehearsal of the 'Covered Waggon.' Everybody was swarming around so and making such important noises. So I edged in and stood there, waiting to look for the angel, when, all of a sudden, I realised that I was the police force. This thought started me edging out, but before I could get away they came through the crowd and I saw them. They looked like nice people to me, and a little drunk. The woman was just beautiful. She must have been an angel because she did queer things to my eyes, sort of made me glad I had them, and that's more than any of the girls round this place ever done. I couldn't make head or tail out of the fight. It struck me as being sort of unfair. I thought of monkeys and lions and dogs and I decided that they wouldn't have acted like that under the circumstances, and I sort of felt sorry about it all and a little ashamed. But I felt better when I saw them walking on the chief, although I felt sorry for him, too, realising all the time that a little walking on would do him no harm. So when these people had passed completely over the chief I helped him up and shoved him in the car. 'You come along too,' he said in a shaky voice and took me along with him. He seemed to want me for some reason or other. The car was already crowded, but I got in with the chief and watched them all pile down on the angel and the two men. It seemed kind of silly and over-done to me, and I tried to help the angel a little, but the fire brigade, not having had any fires for a long time, was wild for action and did fine, considering that there were only twelve of them against three, not counting the chief and myself, and the Quoits Club, and I didn't count for much of course. Then after a while everybody stopped squirming and began to get up, and when they looked at what they had, there was only the drunken man seeming less drunk, but much more battered. 'Where my friends? ' he says, but nobody could give him the right answer, so they told him to shut up and mind his own business, and began looking about for the other two, who just weren't there at all. And that's a strange thing. I could say something else, but it wouldn't do any good. So they put the battered man in the lock-up and stood outside chewing the rag."

What he could have said, but did not say, was withheld because the boy had been endowed with an instinctive sense of delicacy, a shred of which still survived in spite of its unfavourable environment. He was right. It certainly would have served no useful purpose had he told his friends that, as he was walking down the street in the direction of the lock-up, he stopped beside a hedge to inhale its fragrance. Vaguely he was aware of the fact that the hedge had no business to be smelling the way it did at that time of the year, or at any other time, in fact. It was not intended to be a fragrant hedge and had never previously laid any claims to fragrance, but to-night an odour rose from it which stopped the boy and held him wondering. It made him think of a forest swept by the notes of violins. He saw a deep cathedral filled with nude, white figures dancing madly in the radiance of stained-glass windows. Romance descended on the village youth, and for the moment carried him away to realms where only his dreams had dared to dwell. That was all there was to it, but he knew there was more. He felt that he had stood very close to someone who was both beautiful and real. The impression perhaps remains with him to-day.

The "battered man" was borne in triumph to the lock-up. An uninformed observer might have mistaken the event for a procession staged in the honour of some honoured local deity, so well was it attended as the automobile moved down the street and stopped before the jail. Here Mr. Topper was produced without ovation and disappeared from view without acknowledging the silent tribute of his followers. He was felt, searched, written about in a book, re-felt with great interest and thrust into a cell from which he did not emerge until the following morning. When he asked to be allowed to telephone Mrs. Topper, the chief of police refused this request, but agreed to convey his message.

"Tell her I'm well and happy, but that I won't be home to-night."

Nothing loath, the chief aroused Mrs. Topper from a sleepless bed.

"Your husband is well and happy, but he won't be home to-night," said the faithful chief. "Yes, he's safe all right. We've got him safe enough—too safe for him. He's in jail, locked up in jail. What for? Why I wouldn't like to keep you up all night telling you what for. He's done plenty. Yes. It will be held in the morning. You'll hear about it then—all about it."

After a few more words the chief hung up the receiver and sat back, looking pleased. The enemy was his. The village knew how to deal with out-of-town drunks; and he, as chief of police, stood for the village, guarding its dignity, defending its rights, incarcerating its victims. Who could tell? Next year he might be post-master. He got up and surveyed Mr. Topper, who was thoughtlessly sleeping on his cot. The chief felt grateful to him, but just a little disappointed in him.

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