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The Jovial Ghosts

The Misadventures of Topper


Thorne Smith


The Singing Shower-Bath

LIKE a spent runner breasting the tape with his last stride Topper awoke in the morning. By languid stages he rolled himself to the floor, where his feet unconsciously fumbled the carpet for their slippers. As he stood in the middle of the room tentatively fingering his disordered hair, he allowed his eyes to dwell on the other bed. For some moments he regarded this object with scant interest, then gradually his sluggish faculties assimilated the fact that what he beheld gave every appearance of having been occupied. The coverings of the bed presented a scene of opulent disorder. Once Mr. Topper fully appreciated the significance of this discovery it was but a matter of a moment for him to act on it. With far greater speed and decision than he had displayed in quitting his own bed the dismayed man now returned to it. There, huddled in the coverings, he considered his desperate plight, his eyes bleakly searching the room for some source of comfort.

"Marion," he called at last, his voice softly pleading with space. "Marion, I must get up now. Do be a good girl and run along."

As if in answer to his words the shower began merrily to prattle in the bathroom. To Mr. Topper's shrinking ears it sounded like a deluge. And out of the rush of water a slight song came winging through the door. The words and music belonged to Marion Kerby. Topper's fingers nervously plucked at the sheets as he listened to the song:

"I once was a lady as you may divine,
Though the fact it is hard for to see,
Rare beauty and riches and romance were mine,
Before I ran into a tree.
My husband he did it. The devil would drive,
The high-flying, low-lying soak.
And that is the reason I'm no more alive,
For he ran me smack into an oak."

Mr. Topper shuddered at the word "smack" and sprang from the bed. It was all too horrible. How could she sing about the accident? And such a song! "Smack into an oak"—a ghastly picture. Casting his robe round him, he walked with dignity to the door of the bathroom, upon which he knocked vigorously.

"Come out of there," he commanded, transferring his attention to the knob. "Stop that wailing noise. You're splashing water all over everything."

"You just leave me alone now," came the reply with unexpected heat. "I'm tired of your airs and graces. Only wait until you take a shower. I'll raise hell with you then."

Topper regarded the door with a mixture of fear and reproach. What a creature of fury she was. And he had only said a word. The possibilities of her retaliations made him thoughtful. There was no telling what she might do. Then once more the indignity of the situation over-topped his better judgment. He returned to the combat.

"I'd very much like to know," he demanded, "why you persist in considering this situation as normal when obviously there's nothing normal about it. Answer me that. What right have you to become so threatening and furious? You're haunting me. I'm not haunting you. This is my vacation. Can't you get that through your head?"

"Nonsense," came from the shower. "Ladies must bathe."

"But, Marion, you're not a lady," Mr. Topper protested. "Not any longer. Once you might have been, although I have good reason to doubt it. You're only a spirit now and you're supposed to have taken your last bath. If you overlooked your opportunities when you had them, why monopolise mine now?"

"What low insinuations," the shower retorted. "Just wait till I get you in here."

"You'll never get me in there," Mr. Topper answered. "Never! "

"But it's such a lovely shower."

"Then hurry up and come out of it. I've lots of things to do."

"You don't know what you're asking," came insinuatingly from the shower. "You see I materialised just for the occasion, but if you insist . . ."

"I don't," Mr. Topper interrupted hastily. "Only please dematerialise and go away."

"Then where are my knickers?"

"Good God, what a question to ask! I know nothing about your knickers."

"You do so. We stole them in New York."

"Oh," he replied, his face clearing. "I gave them to my wife."

The shower was seized with convulsions.

"She'd look like a staggering sunset in those knickers," it gasped moistly.

"Stop saying things about my wife," Mr. Topper replied, shaking the door knob.

"Not unless you try to be more pleasant."

"How about yourself? Will you try to keep within reason?"

"Yes," she replied. "I'll try. I'll do my best."

"And you'll respect my privacy hereafter and get me into no more scrapes?"

"Absolutely, my little chastling."

Mr. Topper thought quickly. He realised the futility of continuing hostilities. Marion Kerby had every advantage in her favour, and she would use it without honour. Perhaps after all it would be wiser to call a truce with this untamed spirit.

"All right," he said. "I'm game. From now on we'll try to enjoy ourselves. This sort of thing is spoiling my trip. What do you say to a truce?"

"I say yes," she heartily agreed.

The flood suddenly subsided and the door flew open. Topper stepped back, but not in time to save himself from the embrace of two fresh though invisible arms.

"Behold," said a voice in his ear, "your instruments of torture have been laid out by loving hands. Come in and see what I've done."

"That's all very nice," replied Mr. Topper. "And I appreciate your thought, but don't go too far. I know all about shower-baths. I will join you later."

"Then hurry like everything," she urged as she released him. "Let's prepare for fresh adventures now that we're friends again."

"No more fresh adventures," admonished Topper, thrusting his head through the partly opened door. "Leave fresh adventures out of it. The few I've had with you will never stale."

Topper was one who dwelt lovingly over his toilet. In his blood there was something of the Roman emperor. He gloried in steam and tiles. He was never happier than when allowed to occupy his bathroom unmolested, an occasion which occurred only too rarely in his own household. He made the most of his new-found freedom and soaked himself to his heart's content. When at last he emerged glowing from the sweating walls he was both surprised and delighted to find breakfast already awaiting him. It was appetisingly arranged on a table, from which a fork was busily engaged in conveying scrambled eggs to nowhere. To Mr. Topper it was a painful sight. As the fork rose from the plate and daintily poised itself for the thrust he watched with fascinated eyes the amazing disappearance of its burden. Marion Kerby's voice interrupted his contemplation.

"Sit down," she said briskly. "Everything is getting cold. I couldn't wait."

The fork made a quick jab in his direction.

"Don't apologise," he replied, sliding into a chair. "I'll sit down, but before I begin to eat answer me one question. How is it that you can put something into nothing and make it disappear?"

"It's a gift," she explained. "I just gulp it down into the fourth dimension and there it is changed into so much extra ectoplasm."

Mr. Topper tried to smile, but he felt that he was rapidly losing his appetite.

"Its all clear," he said, "but the gulping. Do you have to gulp when you eat?"

"Don't be insulting," she replied, with the fork poised in mid air. "It's merely that I'm ravenous after the shower. Absolutely starved. I don't get a chance to eat very often."

"Then don't let me stand in your way now," Mr. Topper urged gallantly. "Go right ahead and gulp. I'm a trifle greedy myself."

For several minutes no sounds disturbed the tranquillity of the room save those occasioned by eating. Presently, however, Mr. Topper, who had been glancing at his companion with increasing alarm, was forced to speak.

"You'll pardon me," he said, "if I seem to turn away when you gulp your coffee. I can't quite get used to the sight and it gives me the strangest feeling. Every time you tilt your cup I expect to see the coffee splash all over the table."

"Oh, you'll get used to that in time," she answered encouragingly.

"I'm no longer in rompers," he remarked. "But I never miss," she assured him.

"That's just it," he replied. "It would seem more natural if you did."

In the middle of his next mouthful a new fear interrupted his activities.

"How," he demanded, swallowing quickly, "how did you manage to bring this breakfast into being?"

"I telephoned for it," she answered.

Mr. Topper started from his chair.

"My God! " he cried. "They'll think I had a woman in my room all night."

"Sit down," she commanded, "and don't be so jumpy or I will spill my coffee. I imitated your voice perfectly. In fact, I was quite ladylike."

As Mr. Topper resumed his chair Marion Kerby began to laugh.

"Why that?" he asked.

"Because I made one mistake," she answered. "I told the boy to set the tray down outside the door, but when I went to get it he was still there. Well, naturally you can picture to yourself how mystified he was when he saw the tray slide in, as it were, by itself."

"Only too vividly," said Mr. Topper.

"He did look so upset," she added.

"Don't dwell on it," pleaded Mr. Topper. "I've seen too much tragedy as it is. Was it the first boy?"

"It was."

"Then you have probably killed him."

He poured another cup of coffee and drank deeply.

"If not you have driven him mad," he concluded. "Completely unhinged his mind."

He rose wearily from the table and prepared to depart. Marion Kerby made herself helpful. Combs and brushes, shirts and shaving things moved mysteriously across the room and arranged themselves in the suit-case. Mr. Topper, observing this, felt surprised that he was no longer alarmed. He was becoming accustomed to the situation. Placing the books securely in one of the bags, he strapped his luggage and locked it.

"Remember," he said, "I trust you. No monkey business, no helpfulness. If I'm not arrested I'll meet you in the car. Wait for me there."

"I won't do a thing," she promised. "Our first night was delightful."

"Such remarks are better left unsaid," he replied as he closed the door.

Marion Kerby was as good as her word. She allowed him to leave the hotel without further complications. In spite of this Mr. Topper was hardly regarded with warmth by the personnel of the establishment. The bell boys seemed inclined to avoid him, and had he desired to take advantage of his sinister reputation it is highly possible the management would have accepted his absence in lieu of payment. The leave-taking was characterised by a spirit of mutual relief. As no one offered to take his bags he carried them himself and was well satisfied with the arrangement. Marion Kerby was waiting for him in the car.

"You know," she said, "I'm afraid you'll have to take me shopping. If I'm to go along with you I'll need a few things."

Mr. Topper protested strongly, and it was only after the threat of strange and fearful embarrassments swiftly to follow his refusal that he finally agreed to stop his car in front of the lavishly littered windows of a department store. Here at the girl's dictation he wrote out a list of purchases.

"Not that," he objected after the mention of a certain article.

"Absolutely," she insisted. "You gave my knickers to your wife. Now you must buy me knickers. I revel in them."

"Well, you won't revel with me," he said as he mopped his face and made for the store.

Marion Kerby kept close to his elbow and nudged him whenever she had decided on a purchase. In a faint voice Mr. Topper asked for the various articles and stood perspiring until his invisible companion had made her selection. The saleswomen eyed him suspiciously, but he refused to meet their eyes. Had it not been for a disturbing disposition on Marion Kerby's part to possess herself unlawfully of certain small articles by slipping them into his pockets, Mr. Topper would have found nothing radically wrong with her conduct. Whenever he endeavoured to replace the things, she pinched his arm so viciously that he was forced to abandon his attempts to remain an honest man. After innumerable purchases he consulted the list, then mutteringly addressed his arm.

"We've bought all the things," he said. "Let's get out."

"All right," she whispered. "I'll go first."

As she did so she succeeded in attaching herself to a red cape and sport hat draped on a near-by model. The model swayed perilously as it was being bereft of its attire. Mr. Topper stepped back and regarded the scene with despairing eyes. Then he looked about for another exit, but could find none. The model, looking rather summery, settled back to rest, and the hat and cape proceeded jauntily down the aisle. At first no one save Mr. Topper noticed the unusual spectacle, but as the hat and cape continued on their triumphal progress the early morning shoppers began to fall back until finally the passage was lined with mute, inquiring faces.

Mr. Topper, vividly recalling his dream of the previous night, refused to follow the retreating garments. He mingled with the crowd and pretended to look surprised. The effect was that of a dangerously ill man.

"I would have bought the damn things," he kept thinking. "Why didn't she give me the chance?"

Finally, a shopwalker caught sight of the animated hat and cape. Perhaps he did not fully understand the situation, but he did seem to appreciate the fact that high-class merchandise was rapidly departing from the store in a new and altogether unauthorised manner. Whether he was an intrepid man or an extremely dull one can never be established. Perhaps he was both, as so often is the case. The fact remains that this particular shopwalker uttered a cry of protest and darted in pursuit of the hat and cape. At the sound of his voice these articles stopped and the hat peered back inquiringly over the shoulder of the cape. It was a bizarre effect. A woman screamed and fainted, her parcels rolling over the floor. The hat and cape, as if startled, bounded down the aisle and, with a final flourish of red, disappeared through the door. But the shop-walker followed no further. He had completely changed his mind. All resolution had departed from his body. The poised, almost near-sighted expression of the hat as it had looked back over the shoulder of the cape had overcome his sense of duty. He recalled the awful galloping motion of the runaway articles and pressed his hands to his eyes. Before he would involve himself any further in this strange business every stitch of clothing in the establishment could march away in ghastly single file.

For a few seconds after the disappearance of the hat and cape a solemn silence settled over all beholders, then this was shattered by the babble of many voices. Mr. Topper, suddenly realising that his pockets were bulging with stolen goods, and that his arms were filled with bundles, took advantage of the confusion and hurried to his automobile, driving off at full speed. He thought he heard voices, but he refused to look back.

"I would have bought those things," he muttered. "Why didn't you ask me?"

"But you had bought so many things already," Marion Kerby's voice replied. "I didn't want to put you to so much expense . . . and they were so attractive. I've always wanted something red."

"I'd rather be paupered than paralysed," he retorted, eyeing the road ahead for some luckless automobilist to assault.

A promising candidate came in sight, but at the same moment a red cape swam before his eyes and out of the mist he heard Marion Kerby saying:

"Look at it, old dear. Wasn't it worth the trouble?"

"Put that thing away," he shouted. "I can't see to drive. You'll have us both arrested and killed."

The cape fluttered dejectedly to the floor of the car.

"From the way you fling it about," he grumbled, "you'd think I'd been born in a bull ring." The cape quivered timidly.

"Stop doing that!" he exclaimed. "It makes me nervous."

Several miles of silence ensued, then Mr. Topper remarked moodily, "I wish I had."

"What?" asked Marion Kerby, unable to restrain her curiosity.

"Been born in a bull ring," he flung back. "I might never have lived to see this day."

At this the cape rose from the floor and sat down by Mr. Topper. Its shoulders were shaking gleefully. He regarded the garment with a jaundiced eye.

"Your sense of humour," he remarked, "would do justice to a hangman."

At this moment an automobile flashed by and Mr. Topper automatically transferred his insults to its driver, but Marion Kerby paid no attention to his mood. She was happily counting the bundles and searching through his pockets with nimble fingers.

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