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The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith


The Haunted Courtroom

OWING to the public nature of Mr. Topper's various offences, the trial was held in the Town Hall in the presence of the town's entire population, minors and morons rightfully included. Even dogs were not successfully barred from the trial. Mr. Topper noticed several of them and was favourably impressed by their non-partisan attitude, their utter detachment of mind. On the morning of the trial very little business was transacted in that village, the majority of its inhabitants being either complainants or voluntary witnesses. Instead of opening his hardware and furniture shop as was his accustomed wont, the Justice of the Peace arose with unhabitual briskness from the breakfast table, and, surrounded by the numerous members of his family, proceeded with Jove-like mien to the place of the trial, where for some minutes the more vociferous members of the community had been impatiently awaiting his coming.

That much was expected of him the Justice clearly realised. And he solemnly promised himself that not even the most sanguine expectant would be left unsatisfied. There was a duty to perform. A public duty in a public place. That was good. In a public place. That was very good. If only the baby would forget to cry. He hoped that the baby would forget to cry, but in his heart of hearts the Justice knew that the baby would not forget to cry. It never did. In vain had he tried to prevail on his wife to leave the baby at home, impressing on her the importance of the business before him. "Who with?" his wife had asked quite reasonably, and, rather than participate in a breakfast-table riot, the Justice had refrained from nominating one of his numerous daughters. So the baby, not at all appreciating the fact that it was to be present at one of the most brilliant passages of its father's all too few moments in the sun, was conveyed to the trial of Mr. Topper, in its mother's resolute arms.

The Town Hall was a barn-like structure, harsh without and unsympathetic within. Two long rows of benches, now filled with eager spectators, formed a narrow aisle down which the Justice walked a little in advance of his family, as if anxious to leave it behind. It would scarcely have surprised him had his wife and children followed him to the platform and arranged themselves behind him in a proudly silent semi-circle. They were forever basking in the lustre of his name.

No such misfortune occurred, however, and, after making much noise himself, the Justice succeeded in reducing the village to silence.

This was the cue for the chief of police to become active. He responded promptly. With the air of one producing a rabbit from a high hat he pulled Mr. Topper through a side door and modestly displayed him to the multitude. And Topper Iooked not widely unlike a rabbit, a rather battered rabbit that had nibbled on something more potent than cabbage leaves.

This tableau over, the chief of police pushed his pearl into the presence of the Justice, while the chief's reluctant staff, like a hostage maiden being led naked through an alien street, brought up an unenthusiastic and highly sceptical rear.

"The prisoner, your Honour," announced the chief.

"So this is the prisoner," said the Justice, rubbing his hands juicily and beaming down on. Mr. Topper.

Topper felt that had not so many spectators been present the Justice would have kissed him out of sheer gratitude.

"So this is the prisoner," repeated the Justice, his grateful countenance now shedding its rays over the entire room.

Mr. Topper made friendly movements with his features.

"I am," he said. "You're about the first person in this place, with the exception of the chief, who seems really pleased to see me."

The beam was blotted from the Justice's face.

"Silence, prisoner!" he boomed.

Topper stepped back affrighted.

"Sorry," he muttered. "I knew there was a string to that smile."

"He's a tough bird," the chief hastened to explain. "I didn't close my eyes all night. He kept singing. Your Honour, he sang in three different voices, one of them quite girlish and off key."

"That lie alone should discredit him forever," Mr. Topper protested with unexpected heat. "Anyway, his remark is unimportant."

The Justice swooped down over the table like a conventional eagle trade-mark.

"Prisoner," he said, "it is all-important. In fact, it is exactly three times more important than if you had sung in only one voice. I shall make a note of it."

Mr. Topper looked up hopefully. Surely the Justice was exercising his sense of the ridiculous. After all the man was human. But when he met the direct gaze of the Justice, Mr. Topper looked wearily away. The Justice was not human. He was in deadly earnest. He was even making notes. No hope from that quarter.

After a portentous interlude, devoted to the scanning of official documents, the Justice raised his head.

"Your name is Topper," he announced. "Cosmo Topper. Everything is known. Now, prisoner, speak up in a clear voice and tell us where you live and what you do for a living. I am asking you to verify rather than testify, if you can make that distinction."

The Justice felt that he was doing very well. The principal of the Grammar School had laughed out loud. That was a plume.

"But I thought that they didn't do things like that until after you'd been convicted," Mr. Topper replied. "My pedigree comes later, doesn't it?"

"We are trying to save that time," said the Justice.

"But you don't have to hurry so far as I am concerned," replied Mr. Topper earnestly. "My time is at your disposal. As a matter of fact, I'd rather waste a few minutes here than spend several years elsewhere, if you can make that distinction."

"Address the court as 'your Honour,'" put in the chief of police, using an unfriendly elbow on Mr. Topper's ribs.

"You make me feel embarrassed for you," said Mr. Topper. "Try to remember where you are. This is serious, now."

"Stop! " whispered the Justice, a pleading note in his voice. "Don't quarrel. I'll get him sooner or later, chief. Let him hang himself."

"You don't have to let me hang myself," said Mr. Topper in a resolute voice. "Let me say right off that you'll have to make me hang myself. If I killed anyone last night I'm sincerely sorry, terribly, terribly sorry, but for all that I deny everything. I'm innocent to the tips of my fingers."

Once more the Justice beamed. The case was shaping up.

"Deny this, then," he challenged, his eyes greedily watching the faces of the spectators. "Deny that you, Topper, struck, attacked and maimed the body and person of one Joseph Williams, and that, not satisfied with this unwarranted display of ferocity, you brutally assaulted Fred Scafford and Alfred Slides, both of whom together with Joseph Williams are in good standing in this community."

"All right, then, I deny it," said Mr. Topper. "I deny everything so long as you're going to get stuffy about it."

After the night he had put in, Mr. Topper was feeling none too well. Standing there, in the presence of the Justice and the hostile throng, a nauseating dizziness swept down on him. He swayed slightly and for support placed his hand on the edge of the platform. Little beads of perspiration gathered round his lips and eyes. He mopped his face with a crumpled handkerchief and tried to look defiantly at the Justice, who was obviously enjoying Mr. Topper's discomfiture. With a swimming head and a morbid sensation in his stomach, Mr. Topper braced himself and waited. The situation was slowly dawning on him. He was beginning to realise that he, Topper, a man who up to the past night had been a respected member of his community, was now actually a prisoner before the bar of justice, that for all he knew he was a murderer and that he was being tried in the presence of a large gathering of hateful people, in a little village very close to his home—too close to his home. This realisation still further depressed his stomach and brought dismay to his mind. He thought of the bank, he thought of his wife, he thought of his reputation, and fearfully he thought of George and Marion Kerby. And, as if in answer to his thought, Mr. Topper felt two hands fumbling at his bare throat and was petrified to find that the collar which had gone by the board in the course of the evening's activities was being replaced by a fresh one. The Justice, who had never seen a collar attach itself to a prisoner's neck, can be excused for the interest he displayed in the phenomenon. He moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue and looked fixedly at Mr. Topper.

"The collar," said the Justice. "There's something wrong about your collar. It seems to be getting beyond control."

For a moment Mr. Topper was too busy to reply. His head was being violently jerked from side to side as invisible hands attempted to adjust the knot in a new tie, insisting on getting it just right.

"We're trying to spruce you up a bit," whispered the voice of George Kerby. "How do you feel this morning? There, that's about right. Hold your head on one side so I can see."

"This is no place for a talk," muttered Mr. Topper, pretending to arrange the tie. "I feel like hell. Go away."

Then he glanced up at the Justice and smiled. "Had them in my pocket," he said. "Thought I'd make myself a bit presentable."

The Justice looked unconvinced. Then his eyes once more grew large with interest. A comb was being passed through Mr. Topper's hair and a washrag was spreading itself over Mr. Topper's face. Mr. Topper became suddenly active. With one hand he attempted to control the comb and with the other he snatched at the washrag.

"Don't produce a towel," he whispered. "It would be too hard to explain."

Again he smiled at the Justice.

"There," he said, thrusting the comb and washrag into his pocket. "I feel better already. Where were we?"

"Frankly, I don't know," replied the Justice. "You'll have to stop all this."

The hall was in an uproar. People were asking questions and standing on the benches to get a better view of this strangely-acting prisoner. The Justice banged on the table and the chief of police raised his voice in admonition. His staff looked sympathetically at Mr. Topper, who, taking advantage of the noisy interlude, was attempting to explain the situation to his over-zealous friends.

"You've been lovely," he whispered. "Very thoughtful. I appreciate everything, but don't go any further. You can see for yourself."

"We're with you, old boy," replied Kerby. "We're with you to the end."

"But don't be with me here," pleaded Mr. Topper. "Go outside and wait for the end. It's a lovely day. Take a walk round the village. It's not half bad. I'll join you later."

"Marion won't budge," Kerby whispered. "Says she wants to see that you get a fair trial."

"They'll put me away for life if this keeps up," breathed Mr. Topper. "Tell her to go away."

"Not a step do I budge," whispered a voice in his other ear. "I'm going to stand right here and hold your hand. Get ready now, old Zobo is going to ask you something. Brush him off, George. He's all mussed."

"Righto," said George.

"Please, please," Mr. Topper whispered. "Not so loud."

As the Justice fixed Mr. Topper with a distracted eye, Topper felt himself being vigorously brushed and adjusted. His coat flew back and Kerby's busy hands yanked his vest into position. The activity was then transferred to Mr. Topper's trousers, which were spanked and patted with surprising energy. Mr. Topper, attempting to follow the rapid movements of Kerby's hands, looked like a man fighting hornets.

"Prisoner," said the Justice, "I wish you'd stop making such peculiar movements with your hands and body. If you want this case to continue you'll have to give up trying to bewilder me."

"A nervous eccentricity," explained Mr. Topper. "Sometimes it gets the best of me."

"It's almost got the best of me," replied the Justice. "Let's get back to business. As I remember it you were denying everything. Were you?"

"It seems to me that I was," said Mr. Topper.

"Very well then," continued the Justice. "Deny these charges if you have the temerity. Deny that you, Topper, Cosmo Topper, forced entrance with your companions into Frederick Schultz's drug store, that there you attacked a body of peaceable citizens, using the most offensive language against them, that you resisted arrest and made possible the escape of your companions, and finally, that you were driving an automobile while under the influence of strong drink. Deny these charges. Did or did you not commit them?"

"I haven't the slightest idea," said Mr. Topper, truthfully, "but I'm glad it's not any worse."

"We shall try to refresh your memory," replied the Justice. "Joe Williams! Step up, Joe, and testify."

Joe Williams was not loath to appear. He hurried down the aisle and stood before the Justice. "Now look well at the prisoner, Joe," said the Justice, "and tell us if he is the person who assaulted you in front of Schultz's drug store."

Joe looked so long and so well at the prisoner that Mr. Topper thought the young man was Irving to hypnotise him.

"He is, your Honour," answered Joe emphatically. "As I was standing there talking—you know, calm and peaceful-like—down the street comes this . . ."

"Later, Joe, if ever," interrupted the Justice promptly.

Joe's face clouded with disappointment as he turned reluctantly away.

"Are you satisfied, Topper?" the Justice asked.

"I am if you are," replied Topper, "but Joe doesn't look so pleased."

"Perhaps then you will tell us the names of your two friends," continued the Justice. "We might try to make things a little easier for you."

"George and Marion Kerby," said a voice unlike Mr. Topper, but apparently issuing from him.

"And where do these two depraved people live?" the Justice asked.

"They're not depraved," snapped the voice. "And anyway they are safely outside your jurisdiction."

"Try to speak in your natural voice," the Justice commanded. "Do you refuse to answer my question?"

"Well, it's mighty hard to answer," said Mr. Topper. "You see they travel about a lot—almost too much."

A note was passed by the chief of police to the Justice, who, after reading it, looked severely at Mr. Topper.

"I have a note here from your wife," he said. "She states that you are either drunk or crazy, because the people you refer to were killed in an automobile accident several months ago. Such attempts to deceive will not succeed with this court. Nor will they materially strengthen your case."

Mr. Topper looked through the hall until he had located his wife. She was sitting with several friends. He recognised Clara and Harris Stevens.

"Thanks," he called out with a terrible smile. "You are very helpful, my dear. The Justice thanks you, too."

"Silence! prisoner," shouted the Justice. "I'll not have you abusing spectators."

"Not even if she's my wife?" asked Mr. Topper.

"Not now," said the Justice. "Later."

"You don't know her," replied Topper.

"That's neither here nor there," the Justice complained irritably. "You're always getting me off on something else. This is a trial, not a conversation. Answer questions and stop asking them."

"All right, what shall I answer now?" asked Topper.

"Were you driving your automobile while drunk? Answer that," said the Justice.

"You'll have to ask someone else that question," replied Mr. Topper. "I can't answer it."

The Justice motioned to the chief's staff.

"Come here, Albert," he said. "Did you smell whiskey on the prisoner's breath."

"Why, your Honour," answered Albert, in a voice of surprise, "I didn't even try to."

"Answer the question," the Justice commanded. "Did you smell whiskey on the prisoner's breath?"

"I'm not in the habit, your Honour, of smelling perfect strangers' breaths," said Albert with quiet dignity.

"Albert," explained the Justice, "I'm not inquiring into your habits. I'm trying to establish a fact. Please answer the question."

"Well, your Honour," said Albert, "at that time of night everybody's breath smells of whiskey in this town."

A wave of protest from the outraged spectators fortunately drowned the Justice's remarks to Albert. When order had been restored Mr. Topper turned to the Justice.

"If you'll only stop making this public inquiry into the state and nature of my breath," he said, "I'll admit everything."

A cloud of disappointment settled down on the Justice's brow. "Do you mean to say you'll plead guilty to every charge?" he asked.

"Most elaborately," replied Mr. Topper.

At this moment the wailing of an infant filled the hall. The Justice reared his head like a stricken war horse. This was indeed unfortunate. He felt that he was going to have a violent attack of nerves. So far the trial had been a complete failure and now without the slightest consideration for his feelings the prisoner was pleading guilty. It was too bad, the whole affair. And the baby was not making it any better. With a sigh, the Justice decided to put an end to an intolerable situation. He refused to compete with his own child to see whose voice should dominate the hall.

"So, prisoner," he said in a loud voice, a false light of triumph in his eyes, "so at last we have forced you to plead guilty."

"Driven me to it," said Mr. Topper.

"I am glad that you have at least decency enough to admit your guilt after we have clearly established it," continued the Justice.

"I couldn't resist you," smiled Mr. Topper. "Haven't a leg to stand on."

"Don't I get a chance to tell about all the strange things that happened in the lock-up last night?" asked the chief of police in a peevish voice. "Ain't you going to hear about the disappearing clock, and how cigarettes kept smoking in the dark, and matches striking without any hands holding them, and all the funny noises, the hooting and insults and everything."

"It seems that I am," replied the Justice curtly. "But I don't want to and I don't think I shall. Now, Topper, I have it in my power to do either one of two things. I can hold you for the county court or fine you and let you go. I would like to do both. It would give me pleasure to do both, but as I can do only one I am going to fine you and adjourn the court."

"A thrifty decision," said Mr. Topper. "I'm unusually well supplied with ready cash."

"You won't be long," replied the Justice. "Hand over one hundred and fifty dollars."

The Justice thrust the bills in his coat pocket and rose to his feet.

"The court is adjourned! " he shouted. "Clear the hall, chief!"

As the Justice was about to descend the steps leading from the platform he suddenly gave the appearance of a man who had been violently pushed from behind. With an expression of incredulity on his face he flew through the air and landed prostrate on the floor. As the chief bent over to assist him to rise, he, too, as if not to be outdone by his superior, gave a remarkable demonstration of levitation. Without any apparent effort he projected himself through space, sailing lightly over the Justice and stopping with a thud against the base of the platform. The room was filled with wild laughter and the table at which the Justice had been sitting danced crazily in the air. Luckily Mr. Topper could not be held responsible for this disorder. He was standing outside the hall talking with his wife and her friends.

"Why didn't you bring your lunch with you and make a real picnic of it?" he asked with elaborate politeness.

"You're hardly in a position to be sarcastic," answered Mrs. Topper. "A little common humility would be more becoming."

"I can hardly see that," said Mr. Topper. "I've afforded you more enjoyment than you have me. There will be a tremendous demand for the company of those who attended the trial. You'll be fed free for weeks."

"Come, Topper," put in Harris Stevens "We were only trying to help you."

"By writing nasty notes to the Justice," said Topper.

"Well, I merely dictated it," replied Stevens. "Your wife thought of it. We didn't want you to get into any more trouble. You've been through a lot. What a time you must have had. Was there a woman in the party?"

"The Follies Chorus," said Topper. "In tights. Pink, blue, red and green."

"Come, Clara," Mrs. Topper interrupted, "we'll be getting home."

"And some of them were in less than that!" Mr. Topper shouted furiously as the party moved off. "Much less than that! Tell everybody I said so."

"May I get a few lines for the local paper?" asked a young man, stepping up to the gesticulating Topper.

"Yes! " cried Mr. Topper, "a few lines in your face if you don't take the silly thing away."

The youth withdrew and Mr. Topper was left comparatively alone. That is, he was surrounded, but at a distance, by an absorbed circle of observers.

"Now where the hell's the car?" he muttered.

As he spoke he heard a loud honking of an automobile horn and the car, like a playful puppy, came darting through the crowd. The Justice, standing on the porch of the Town Hall, witnessed the scene and shut his eyes tightly. The car was driverless. He could not stand that. As he leaned against the wall he feared he was going to lose his mind. When he opened his eyes again Mr. Topper had stepped into the automobile and was driving off while the people stood about with panic in their midst.

"Here's the money," said George Kerby. "I snatched it out of the old bird's pocket."

A roll of bills found its way into Mr. Topper's hand.

"Oh, my God," he groaned. "Are you two back again?"

"Sure," said the Kerbys in a breath. "Aren't you glad?"

Mr. Topper was unable to reply.

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