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The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith



BEFORE the sun had set Mr. Topper had left a trail of dust across his native state and carried warfare deep into the heart of Connecticut. Like a floating mine in an ocean lane he endangered the safety and ruined the happiness of all creatures who came his way. His intentions were above reproach had he been able to execute them, but in this he failed lamentably. He was a travelling display of frightfulness, a menace to moving traffic. The curses of his fellow-creatures followed him down the road. He had never before realised how vindictive, how utterly given to fury, automobilists were. Sarcasm, insults and jeers, all were flung at Mr. Topper, and all found their mark. He shrank within himself and placed his destiny in the hands of God. But long hours of sustained driving effected a gradual change in his spirits, and towards sunset it was Topper who was shouting bitter oaths at passing automobiles. Each oath increased his confidence and self-respect, until at last he came to regard with malicious pleasure the approach of another car, epithets fairly boiling on his tongue.

"They've tried to ruin my day for me," he thought. "I might as well get back at them now."

When not engaged in roadside altercations, Mr. Topper's thoughts strayed back to home. He was heavily depressed to find that he lacked the thrill of escape.

In the early morning, under the stimulus of the previous evening's scene, he had left his wife, his bed and the knickers to settle the dispute among themselves, and stolen forth to the garage, where the secretly prepared automobile was waiting to carry him to liberty. As he passed through the sitting-room Scollops, abandoned to sleep, was lying in his chair. Lying is hardly the word. Moulded would be more descriptive of the cat's contact with the yielding upholstery. Given a sufficient length of time, Scollops might have grown to the chair, so much a part of her had she made it already.

It was not without pride that Topper regarded his cat. She had selected his chair for her slumbers. Possibly she sensed he was near. Topper's unconscious craving to be loved made him overlook the fact that his was the most comfortable chair in the room, and being such naturally recommended itself to Scollops' practical mind. His knowledge of cats was hardly more extensive than his knowledge of women. In some respects Topper was more fortunate than he realised.

He had stooped over the sleeping creature and run his hand along her luxurious side. A short,surprised bubbling sound signified that although she appreciated the attention, she could do nothing about it at present, complete rest being her most urgent need. However, he could stand there and continue to stroke her if it gave him any pleasure. She rather enjoyed it.

Topper was now thinking of Scollops as he had last seen her. He was wondering whether he should have brought her along. Perhaps she might be forced to suffer vicarious atonement for his sins. That would be too bad. After due consideration he decided that an automobile was as much as if not more than he could well manage, and that Scollops would have complicated things to the breaking point. Yet the fact remained that he was lonely. He almost wished he had taken Marion Kerby along for at least the first stage of the trip, but when he recalled the humiliation of the previous day, he felt glad that he had not given in to this weakness—nay, madness.

A slight misunderstanding with an inter-urban trolley car forced him to concentrate on the business of keeping alive, and when next he had time to glance at his surroundings he found with relief that he was in a town which gave the appearance of being large enough to support life.

The hotel was even more than he had hoped for or expected. It was so self-consciously modern that it wore an injured air. A negro bell boy fairly snapped at his bags and bore them away in triumph down a colonnaded hall. Mr. Topper, hardly less triumphant at having arrived intact at some destination, no matter where, followed at a more leisurely pace. Then it was that the hotel, or at least that part of it assembled in the lobby, received a decided shock. As Mr. Topper approached the desk two books pursued him down the hall. The negro bell boy on seeing the phenomenon dropped the bags and began to look for wires or for any other rational explanation of this unprecedented occurrence. Unable to find a comforting solution, he held on to the desk and shivered while looking pathetically at the clerk. Unfortunately for the bell boy the clerk was too much preoccupied with his own feelings to share his moral courage with others. By the strained attention of the clerk's features Mr. Topper could tell that something was wrong. And when the two books thrust themselves under Mr. Topper's arm he knew that all was wrong. He snatched at the books and offered them to the clerk.

"They're not mine," announced Mr. Topper lyingly. "You'd better take care of them."

"I won't touch them," replied the clerk, withdrawing from the books.

"Well, you take them," said Mr. Topper, turning to the bell boy. "Someone here must own them."

The bell boy shivered himself out of reach.

"They followed you," he muttered. "They didn't follow me. I don't read, boss. Please point those books the other way."

"Damn it, then, I'll throw them here,"exclaimed Topper, tossing the books into a chair. "Give me a room and bath."

The clerk, still eyeing the books suspiciously, reached for a key and handed it to the reluctant bell boy.

"Take him away," he said, briefly.

As Topper turned to follow his bags he cast it swift, pleading glance at the abandoned books.

"Don't follow me," he muttered. "This is serious."

On his way to the elevator he could not resist the temptation to look back. He felt sure that he saw the books fluttering entreatingly in the chair. It was like leaving a dog behind, one that was not to be trusted. Only when the elevator door had closed with a satisfying clang of finality did Mr. Topper breathe a sigh of relief.

Once in his room he endeavoured to regain his composure. Looking coldly at the bell boy, he said, "Bring me some ice water and the evening paper, a New York paper if they have them here."

The sound of the closing door synchronised with a terrible scream. Mr. Topper, completely unnerved, rushed to the door and looked out. Two books were coming stealthily down the hall. The bell boy was flattened against the wall, and every time he screamed the books stopped as if undecided what course to pursue under the circumstances. And every time the books stopped the bell boy put his hands over his eyes and replenished his spent lungs with air for further efforts.

Mr. Topper was speechless. He wanted to tell the bell boy not to scream, but he could only speak in a whisper.

"Don't scream, little bell boy," he heard himself saying. "Don't scream and I'll give you a dollar."

But money made no impression on the bell boy. Avarice had been cleansed from his soul. He was purified by fear. And as the books drew abreast of him and made a vicious dart in his direction he sank to the floor. For a moment the two volumes danced wickedly over the fallen negro, then with surprising swiftness flashed into Mr. Topper's room, and with an ill-tempered bang deposited themselves upon the table. Mr. Topper closed the door, but not before he had had time to catch a glimpse of the bell boy worming his way in the direction of the elevator.

Still unable adequately to express his feelings in words, Mr. Topper sank into a chair and gazed down on the street. The worst had happened. Nothing hereafter could ever be quite so bad. Had he remained at home with Scollops he would have been far better off. Even Mrs. Topper with her indigestion and her sighs would have been preferable to this. He should have stopped at the local mad-house instead of the hotel. What were they talking about downstairs? The long twilight was streaming out and the room was growing dark. Fearfully he let his eyes rest on the books. He cleared his throat suggestively.

Well," he said at last, "you might as well speak. I know you're here. Why deny it?"

"But I haven't said a word," came a surprised voice from the direction of the wastepaper-basket.

"Then don't," said Mr. Topper. "And try to pick out less disturbing places to settle in."

There was no reply, but the window shade rolled down with a sudden snap and the electric lights as suddenly flashed into being. Mr. Topper started nervously.

"You're always trying to be so helpful," he remarked petulantly. "Where the devil are you?"

Like a blind man endeavouring to locate a voice he looked round the room, a baffled light in his eyes.

"For God's sake say something," he exclaimed. "What are you doing now? What are you going to do?"

"For the moment I'm roosting on the chandelier," came Marion Kerby's familiar voice, "but I'll be down presently."

"When are you going for good?"

"Why, I hadn't intended to go," she replied. "I'd decided we'd better take a good long rest and make an early start in the morning."

"We," he said. "How do you mean 'we'? I won't ever go to bed unless you clear out."

"What's the difference?" she asked. "What's so strange about 'we'?"

"You're too depraved to understand," replied Mr. Topper. "Merely because you claim you're not legally bound to your husband don't get the idea that you are to me."

"But there are twin beds here," she protested. "And it's been such a long day."

"If they were triplets it wouldn't change my mind," said Mr. Topper.

"Prude," she jeered.

"Why?" asked Topper. "You seem to think that you should enjoy not only all the privileges of a spirit but also the few comforts that are left to mortal beings."

"Why not?" she answered. "You forget I am quite low-planed."

"Not for a moment," said Mr. Topper. "You never give me the chance."

Marion Kerby laughed.

"I choose the bed by the window," she said. "You can sleep on the inside. You'll be out of the draught."

"That's very thoughtful of you," replied Mr. Topper, "but you don't quite understand. I have a lot of things to do, none of which requires an invisible audience. I must shave and exercise and take my bath, and damn me if I'll have you floating about this room while I'm doing these things."

"I'll hide my head in the pillow," she suggested.

"But it wouldn't be humanly possible for you to keep it there."

"Don't judge others by yourself."

"I can't in this case," said Mr. Topper. "It isn't fair. You're invisible and I can't see you, but I'm quite solid and you can see me."

"Are you making advances?" asked Marion Kerby.

"Not at all! " exclaimed Mr. Topper.

"For if you are," she continued, "I can very easily alter the situation. Just to show you what a good sport I am I'll materialise."

"Don't do that," said Mr. Topper. "Most emphatically not. Get the idea out of your head. There are laws against such things, unpleasant, illogical laws. Do you want me arrested again?"

As Marion Kerby began to laugh at Mr. Topper's consternation there was a knock on the door and a bell boy entered, a new bell boy.

"Stop laughing," commanded Mr. Topper.

"But I'm not, sir," said the bell boy.

"Oh, I thought you were," replied Mr. Topper. "It must have been my suit-case. It squeaks."

A smothered sound descended from the chandelier. Both Topper and the bell boy glanced up.

"That pipe needs fixing," remarked Mr. Topper.

"Anything else, sir?" said the boy, hastily placing the water and the newspaper on the table.

"I hope not," Topper replied earnestly. "I certainly hope not."

The bell boy withdrew without waiting for a tip. Mr. Topper locked the door.

"That sounds interesting," said the chandelier. "I'm so excited."

"Don't be lewd," Mr. Topper snapped. "Do you realise I haven't dined?"

For an answer he felt two arms twining round his neck and two lips touching his cheeks. In spite of himself he was thrilled.

"Stop all this," he said. "I dislike any show of emotion."

A low laugh sounded in his ears and his hair began to move strangely on his head. Marion Kerby was playfully rumpling her victim.

"Please," protested Mr. Topper. "This is most uncanny."

"I'm just bidding you good night," she replied. "You lied to me about going away, but I'll forgive you. Don't worry. I wouldn't sleep in here if you begged me. You go down and have your dinner, get a good night's sleep and I'll be waiting for you in the morning."

"Where?" he asked suspiciously.

"In the car," she replied. "Good night."

Topper suddenly felt himself alone. He could not tell why, but he knew that Marion Kerby was no longer in the room. The place seemed empty. And strangely enough he did not feel relieved. Nevertheless as he left the room he took the precaution to remark aloud:

"I'm not going to read. Leave the books alone."

After a hearty dinner, taken outside the hotel, he returned to his room and prepared himself for bed. For some reason he trusted Marion Kerby. He felt sure that she would not take advantage of his solidity. Yet why had he not taken advantage of her offer to materialise? Topper was not accustomed to sleeping alone. It would have been jolly to have had a companion. A real one. With a backward thought of Scollops and a forward thought of the morrow he switched off the lights and settled into bed. Mrs. Topper stalked his dreams. She was standing at a cross-roads gloomily directing traffic, and every time he attempted to go her yellow hand held back his car.

It was after one of these irritating dreams that he awoke to hear regular breathing coming from the bed at his side. He was shocked beyond words. What an outrageous thing to do after her promise. He thrust his hand out in the darkness and shook the bed.

"Wake up," he whispered piercingly. "Wake up. You can't stay in here."

"Oh, let me alone," came the sleepy rejoinder. "Don't bother me. I've had to stand your driving all day long."

"Don't argue," whispered Mr. Topper. "Get up at once and go away. Sleep in the garage."

"Sleep there yourself."

"But, Marion," continued Topper, trying another tack. "This isn't right. Your husband is a friend of mine."

"Well, I slept with him for years."

"How shameless."

Not at all. One would think I was trying to seduce you."

"I know you're not, but you're making a nervous wreck out of me. I value your husband's friendship."

Marion Kerby laughed mirthlessly.

"It wouldn't be worth a cent if he saw us now," she said.

"When's he due back?" asked Mr. Topper, after a moment's thought.

"You can't tell," she replied. "He might drop in at any minute."

This information contributed little to Mr. Topper's happiness. He looked morosely out into the darkness.

"I could never explain," he remarked as if to himself.

"You wouldn't have time," said Marion.

"Then why not be sensible and go away?"

"Because I'm very comfortable where I am, thank you."

"Oh, dear," he said to the darkness. "I'd rather sleep in the bathtub."

"Go on and sleep in the bathtub. Turn on the water and pull it up over your ears."

Mr. Topper made no answer, but sat hunched up in his bed. Suddenly he jumped. Marion Kerby was yawning in his ear.

"Oh, give me a kiss," she said, "and let's get some sleep."

"This is downright ghastly," he muttered. "Haven't you any morals at all?"

"Hardly any."

"Well, I have a few left. Try to remember that."

He sank back into the bed and gathered the coverings tightly about him. Several minutes of silence passed as he listened to Marion Kerby's regular breathing.

"Won't you please go away?" he said at last.

"If you don't stop waking me up," she replied irritably, "I'll start screaming and let in the whole hotel."

Before this threat Mr. Topper wilted. He buried his head in the pillow and remained silent. His desperate desire to be elsewhere drove him into oblivion, but this time Mrs. Topper did not disturb his dreams. Instead, he was in his pyjamas and Marion Kerby was chasing him through the corridors of the hotel. All the doors were open and people were crowding in them. As he sped down innumerable miles of carpet, grinning faces greeted him on either side and ironical cheers of encouragement followed his headlong flight. And the most terrible thing of all was that his pyjamas were threatening to part.

"If I trip now," he thought to himself, "I'll be a marked man for life."

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