|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|
The Jovial Ghosts
The Misadventures of Topper
Enter the Colonel and Mrs. Hart
A SHAFT of hazy sunlight sifting through moist green leaves found its way into Mr. Topper's room. After fingering the bedspread delicately it finally crept up to his strangely innocent-looking face, now lying unprotected beneath a nocturnal gathering of whiskers. Topper stirred fretfully and rolled over on his side. In his heart there was a fierce desire to remain oblivious of life, but somewhere within his subconscious lurked a painful suspicion that all was not well with the world, or at least, that part of the world which he, Topper, personally occupied. He half opened his eyes and squinted at the room. Had there not been a man with an ugly club? Yes, there had been such a man. And had not Marion Kerby done violence to this person? The fact was not to be denied. Topper was clear about that.
"What a life! " he thought to himself. "What a series of calamities! Every morning I wake up in a different place and under more depressing circumstances. It's like a curse."
Nevertheless, when he arose and stretched, he felt within himself a spirit of freedom and buoyancy that had never come to him during his more orderly regime. He liked the smell of the room. The forest had gathered close to the walls and drenched them with the fragrance of its fresh green life. And he liked the way the sunlight sprayed upon the matting. Matting was a pleasant sort of an arrangement. He enjoyed the way it felt on his bare feet. It made him think of swimming. Why it did he could not tell, but it did and that was enough. Topper could swim quite well. He was satisfied about his swimming. It was his only accomplishment. Marion Kerby would be surprised when she saw him in the water. His new bathing things were in the suit-case in her room. Rather bearishly he moved across the matting, examining unfamiliar objects and thinking half thoughts. One of these thoughts was connected with Marion Kerby's room. It occurred to him that it really was not her room, nor was this one his. The rooms belonged to someone else. They were being unlawfully occupied. Topper trod the matting no longer like an aimless bear. His step was more like the stealthy tread of a criminal, a modest unassuming criminal. He hurried to the open door between the two rooms and thrust in a frightened face.
"Get up," he said. "We can't stay here for-ever. The whole neighbourhood will be down on us at any minute."
No answer came from the bed, for the reason that the bed was empty. As he regarded the tossed coverings an alarming suspicion chilled his heart.
"My God," he thought, "she's left me. At any other time I'd let her go gladly, but not now. She got me into this fix and she ought to get me out."
With a heroic display of modesty, considering his overwrought condition, he flung on his bath-robe and hurried outside. The object of his quest was not in sight, but he found on the table a partially empty cup of coffee. The pot on the stove was still warm.
"She's had coffee," he thought bitterly. "She would. Then she left me without even a word—left me sleeping."
He went to the door and peered miserably out on the sparkling face of the lake. The scene hurt his eyes. How could the world look so happy when he felt so sad? And how could he ever hope to escape in the full light of day with a suit-case in either hand? He was reluctant to face the day, and was about to withdraw from it when something resembling a song floated to his ears. He recognised the voice and was filled with relief. The song drifted mournfully to him from somewhere close at hand.
Topper did not care for the words, nor was he impressed by the long-drawn-out plaintiveness of the voice, but he was overjoyed to know that the singer was approaching the cottage.
There was a thrusting sound in the foliage, and, after a few muttered imprecations concerning a certain blackberry bush, Marion Kerby, wild and dishevelled, appeared at the foot of the steps. Topper regarded her with thankfulness, but not with approval. That he could not do. In either hand she held a bottle and under one arm there nestled another one. Altogether, Topper decided, it was a convincing display of greed. Her face was flushed and her eyes sparkled dangerously. She was obviously pleased with herself and expected Topper to be.
"See," she said, wiggling the bottles. "Look what I brought back."
Topper looked and observed that one of the bottles, the one under her arm, was not altogether full. It was nearly half empty. This sorrowful fact did not add to Topper's spirit of tolerance.
"What do you mean by drinking at this time of day?" he demanded.
"No harm, old dear," she answered. "No harm."
"Have you no sense of decency?" he continued.
"None at all," she replied with unclouded cheerfulness. "Never had. You cornered the market at birth."
"Well, I'll tell you now it's far from decent to be in your condition at this time of day," said Topper.
"My eye," she replied, leaping up the steps. "That's simply a question of time. Whether you drink it at dawn or at dusk, you get fuzzy just the same. The earlier the better, say I. Now, if you'd take a good stiff hooker of this Scotch, I'll lay you odds you'll jolly soon forget about being decent. You'll be as happy as a lark—a decent bird, I'm told."
"But I haven't even had breakfast," Topper protested.
"Nonsense!" she replied with a magnificent sweep of her arm. "Look at the sunlight playing on the wind-struck lake. Catch the breath of the morning drifting through the trees. See the young earth sending forth her, her—whatever they happen to be. Feel the world throbbing with new life and impulse. Get wise . . ."
"But I can't eat sunlight and young earth," complained Mr. Topper, rudely cutting in on her poetical outburst. "A cup of coffee and some scrambled eggs also have their decent points."
She looked thoughtfully at his troubled face.
"Take a drink and I'll get you some breakfast," she said. "This is good stuff. I stole it from Mr. Wilbur, our absent host. He has a cellar full."
She filled a glass and handed it to Topper. Feeling the need for courage, he gulped it down and looked startled. The effect was almost immediate. Like the young earth to which Marion Kerby had referred, his blood began to throb with new life and impulse. With a regal sweep of his bathrobe he threw himself down in a chair.
"Did you see our friend, the caretaker?" he asked.
"I did," she replied, splashing some eggs into a pan. "He's still on his feet, but somewhat unsteady. There's a bandage round his head. He limps."
Topper took another drink and placed himself at the table. "On with the eggs," he commanded. "Now that you've crippled him, I'll try to kill him."
Marion Kerby watched him with a kindling eye as he fell upon the eggs.
"That's right," she said. "Eat and acquire flesh. I'll drink and acquire merit, after which we'll both go swimming."
"Great stuff!" exclaimed Topper. "I'll swim right across the lake and back in my brand-new suit. It's in your room."
"Braggart," the girl replied. "I'm going in to dress."
"Just wait and see," said Topper, refilling the glasses. "Throw me out my rompers."
"Hand me in a drink," she called back, flinging his suit through the door. "I'm Eveish all over."
She thrust out a bare white arm and wiggled the fingers impatiently. Topper placed the glass in her hand, then, seized by a sudden impulse, bent over and kissed her smooth, cool arm. Marion gave a little gasp of amazement.
"If I wasn't afraid of spilling my drink," she said, "I'd come out and smash your face."
"You'd do nothing of the kind," announced Mr. Topper, straightening up and looking proud. "Nothing at all of the kind. I'll kiss you as much as I want."
He finished his drink and walked unevenly to his room. At the door he uttered a triumphant laugh, which ended ingloriously in a hiccough.
"Merciful heavens! " came Marion Kerby's surprised voice. "What has come over our Cosmo? He's actually getting aggressive."
"Make no mistake," he shouted back, desperately weaving his legs into his shorts. "I'm the master in this house. From now on I rule."
Marion Kerby dashed into the room and Topper began to scream.
"This isn't fair," he protested. "Wait till I've got my shirt on."
Marion refused to wait. Like a white flash the slim figure darted around Topper, raining blow after blow on his well upholstered body. Fighting his way into his shirt, he attempted to defend him-self, but his efforts were futile. She closed in on him and tickled his fat ribs. With a series of girlish squeals he sank panting to the floor, whereupon she danced on his stomach and uttered a cry of victory. Like a jovial porpoise Topper rolled from side to side, sweating profusely from too much Scotch and exertion.
"Who's the master of this house?" she demanded, digging a toe in his side.
"You are," he gasped. "Stop tickling me before you give me a stroke."
With a final kick she withdrew from combat and stood looking down at the vanquished male.
"Get up, you tub," she said. "From now on I rule. Get up and swim across the lake."
"You're a fiend in a one-piece bathing suit,"Topper muttered in a husky voice. "Get that bottle. I'm all in."
"Keep a civil tongue in your head," she warned as she hurried from the room.
When she returned with the bottle they sat down on the edge of the bed and eyed each other suspiciously. Topper gratefully swallowed his drink and sighed deeply. Then he reached over and clumsily patted his companion.
"You know," he announced rather thickly, "I haven't been so happy in years. Take me out and show me the lake. Something seems funny about my legs."
She threw an arm round his shoulder and together they left the room, their voices raised in song.
"I can't get used to that word 'smack,'" said Mr. Topper. "Otherwise the song's good."
Throughout the uneven progress of the journey Topper was more helped than helpful. He had a decided tendency to starboard list, which the girl gravely endeavoured to offset. Once she failed and the great weight of Topper bore down on her with full force. For a moment there was a threshing of arms and legs emerging from a cluster of deep-seated grunts. Eventually she succeeded in extricating herself and Topper was helped to his feet.
"Don't trip me again," he panted. "It's not at all funny."
Marion felt her bruises and laughed sarcastically.
"Do you think it's my idea of a good time to be crushed to earth by a hulk like you?" she asked.
"Then why didn't you dematerialise?"
"Because you'd have broken every bone in your gross body," she answered with heat.
"Hadn't thought of that," Topper apologised. "Very much obliged."
"Don't mention it," she replied. "What's a little fall between friends? Here we are at the landing. It's your first move."
Topper swayed dangerously on the edge of the landing, then with surprising agility rose in the air and disappeared neatly into the water. As soon as he reappeared he stroked out with a tremendous show of purpose for the opposite shore, about a quarter of a mile away. As the space grew wider between them, Marion Kerby watched him at first with anxiety and then with admiration. His arms flayed the water rhythmically and a trail of foam followed his churning feet. Topper was swimming as if possessed. Everything was in his favour. He was unable to fall and too fat to sink. When Marion had eased her mind as to his ability to keep above water, she arched her back in a businesslike dive of her own. Like a water sprite she played around the landing, not troubling so much about swimming as creating a great confusion. By the time that the aquatic Topper had achieved the other side she had exhausted the possibilities of the lake. Like a fretful child she stood on the landing and stamped for Topper to come home. The keen morning air was not the warmest of blankets. She raised her voice in a long cry.
"Come on over," she shouted. "I'm going back."
Upon the reception of this message Topper placed an admonishing finger to his lips and with his other hand swept the surrounding hills. He was partially sober now and wholly fearful.
"Why does she have to arouse the neighbourhood?" he muttered as he watched her dancing form.
Ceasing from this activity, she threw her head back and, thrusting her thumb into her mouth, gave an eloquent but vulgar pantomime of drinking. Then she turned and ran up the path, her white legs flashing in the sunlight. The effect was registered on Topper. He plunged back in the lake and put forth his best efforts.
"She has no conception of honour," he thought gloomily as he wallowed along. "She'd cheerfully drink while I was drowning."
A little surprise in the form of a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman was waiting for Topper when he reached the landing. Upon seeing this stranger, Topper's first impulse was to sink forever beneath the protecting surface of the lake, but there was still enough Scotch in his veins to give him the semblance of courage.
"Good morning," said the distinguished-looking gentleman in a suspiciously friendly voice. "You seem to be enjoying yourself."
"I am," replied Topper. "I deserve to."
"I'll not dispute that," said the man on the landing, "but I doubt if you could prove it."
"My own enjoyment is proof enough," Topper answered.
"And how do you arrive at that conclusion?" asked the other.
"I've already arrived," said Topper.
"That I see. But how, I don't see," the distinguished-looking gentleman pursued.
"By the simple process of reason," Mr. Topper explained as he laboriously trod water. "Any creature, man or beast, who has the capacity and desire to enjoy life deserves that enjoyment."
"You preach hedonism," replied the other briefly.
"Whatever that means I doubt it," said Mr. Topper, "but, whether it is or isn't, I'm not going to drown myself to discuss the point further."
"And that's quite sensible," the gentleman answered. "Come out and I'll give you a lift."
Stooping over, he firmly seized Mr. Topper's extended hand and helped him out of the water, after which he continued holding the hand, shaking it cordially the while. Topper feared he was captured.
"Delighted to meet you," said the distinguished-looking gentleman, beaming down on Topper. "I greatly admired your skill in the water."
"Thanks," replied Topper weakly, "but before we go any further let's settle one point. You are not by any chance remotely connected with the law, are you?"
"I am afraid not," said the stranger.
"I'm glad not," declared Topper.
"As a matter of fact," the other continued, "I've devoted most of my life to breaking the law. I have been a soldier, a legalised and official killer, a person beyond the law."
Topper drew a sigh of relief and rose to his feet. For some reason he had taken rather a fancy to the distinguished-looking gentleman. It occurred to him that he had not spoken to a man for several days. He had been too long in feminine company. He would cultivate this stranger.
"If you are beyond the law," said Topper, "you'd probably not balk at a glass of Scotch."
"I'd do more than balk," the gentleman answered. "I'd actually lie down to it."
"Then come along with me," Topper said, turning up the path.
"One moment," the man called, "I happen to have a wife about somewhere. Would you balk at her?"
"By no means," answered Topper. "Although convention prevents me from going to the same extremes as you, I should be delighted to meet her."
"The opportunity is at hand," replied the gentleman.
Topper looked up the path and saw a tall, fair-haired woman approaching. There was something engagingly rakish in her bearing. He placed her age as a good-humoured thirty-five. She was carrying some early flowers in her hand and puffing a cigarette.
"My dear," called the man, "this gentleman has been so good as to ask us to share his Scotch."
My dear dropped her flowers and flooded Mr. Topper with a delighted smile.
"He is heaven-sent," she exclaimed in a rich voice. "Let's hurry before he drops dead or changes his mind. Watch the roots. He might trip and lose his memory."
"Truly," thought Mr. Topper, as he led them up the path, "this is a frankly thirsty pair."
The gentleman began to whistle and call the name of Oscar. Topper looked back in surprise, but seeing no new arrival, ascribed the gentleman's conduct to a spirit of fun caused by the prospect of a drink.
On arriving at the cottage Topper hurried up the steps and looked inside. Marion, still in her bathing suit, was sitting at the table with a glass in her hand. She was smoking one of Topper's best cigars.
"I'm bringing some friends," he announced under his breath. "Are you sober enough to receive them?"
"Trot 'em in," she replied brightly. "But are you sure they're friends?"
"Positive," said Topper. "Good sports."
Marion went to the door and greeted the pair. "I am delighted," she said sweetly, "to meet any friends of my husband. Come right in."
The gentleman thoughtfully removed the glass from her hand and, bending low, ceremoniously kissed it, after which he waved to his wife.
"We are Colonel and Mrs. Scott," he said. "And I am sure we are all happily met. Lie down, Oscar."
"That's a joke of his," whispered Topper. Marion laughed agreeably and took Mrs. Scott's hand.
"Why, you're so beautiful, my dear," she said, "that I can't keep my eyes off you. Come in and give me a cigarette. I'm tired of my husband's cigars. Cosmo, do the honours."
She took the glass from the reluctant Colonel and led the way indoors.
"And you," said the Colonel, "look like a creature from another world—the spirit of the lake, the priestess of the woods."
Marion threw him a narrow glance, then bowed gravely.
"Sit down, Arthur," said Mrs. Scott in a calm voice. "You'll get your drink, any way."
"My darling," exclaimed the Colonel, "what a cynical remark I Down, Oscar."
Both Topper and Marion laughed politely, thinking that this was expected of them. Then Topper distributed the drinks and the party sat down at the table.
"This seems," announced the Colonel judiciously, after he had sampled the Scotch several times, "this seems to be prime whiskey. Of the best."
Topper, who as a result of his long swim and liberal hospitality had been showing a decided disposition to slumber, opened his eyes at this remark and squinted at the Colonel.
"It seems to me," he said unpleasantly, "that you do a devil of a lot of seeming."
"I do," agreed the Colonel with winning affability. "Because things are not always as they seem."
For a few moments Topper concentrated on this reply. To him it was fraught with meaning. It covered his whole life.
"You're right, Colonel," he said at last. "You're dead right there. To you I seem to be a sleepy man in a bathing suit, whereas I'm a fat banker running away from his wife."
The Colonel elevated one eyebrow just sufficiently to betray surprise.
"Then the present arrangement, I take it, is not permanent," he suggested with a delicate inflection.
"Neither permanent nor tangible," Topper answered, solicitously filling his own glass.
"I see," replied the Colonel thoughtfully, showing equal solicitude for himself. "Then, indeed, we are happily met as I have already remarked. Neither is our relationship of a lasting nature. Mrs. Hart and myself are just visiting each other. Regards!"
Slightly scandalised in spite of the liberalising influence of the Scotch, Topper mechanically raised his glass.
"Regards," he said absently. "Happily met."
"Isn't it too funny for words," exclaimed the newly discovered Mrs. Hart, leaning over to Marion Kerby. "Give that man a few drinks and he becomes as frank as a fool. I never do."
"I'm sure I don't know what's happened to Cosmo," Marion replied. "Usually he's the world's worst hypocrite."
"Not at all, my love," he protested. "Usually I'm the world's best hypocrite—and that in spite of you."
"Down, Oscar!" the Colonel irritably interrupted. "Damn it, go to sleep."
At this point Topper sprawled back in his chair and laughed uproariously, while the Colonel watched him in dignified silence.
"Tell me," asked the Colonel, when Topper had subsided, "why do you always laugh when I call my dog?"
Topper wiped his eyes and looked admiringly at the Colonel.
"You're a scream, Colonel," he said. "And you say the funniest things. Why I thought you wanted me to laugh. You haven't any dog."
"But I have a little dog," declared the Colonel. "Want to see him?"
"Don't be silly, Arthur," interposed Mrs. Hart.
"Nonsense," said the Colonel. "I'll show him my little dog. Come here, Oscar. Do your stuff."
Topper glanced down and saw a vague stirring in the atmosphere round the Colonel's feet. Then gradually the rump of a small, shaggy dog appeared. Its tail was wagging excitedly.
"That's the boy!" cried the Colonel. "Keep it up, Oscar. Make a whole dog for the gentle-man."
A few more inches of dog appeared, but evidently Oscar had exhausted his talents. The tail continued to wag as if asking to be excused from further endeavours.
Topper rose unsteadily from his chair.
"Please, please, Colonel," he pleaded, "don't make him do any more. He's done enough already. Ask him to go away."
"Very well," agreed the Colonel reluctantly, but he can do much better than that. Sit down, Oscar, like a good chap."
Apparently forgetting the condition he was in, Oscar, or rather the rear end of him, settled to rest. The tail gave a final wag, then came to repose on the floor.
"I feel in need of a little fresh air," Topper remarked in a strained voice. "This has been a very unusual occurrence."
He turned to the door, then took a step back. Three large men were crowding in it, and in the background stood the caretaker.
"We're surrounded!" Topper exclaimed, turning back to the table.
But Topper found no comfort there. The table was empty.
"God," said one of the men, "they're all gone but him."
"He's enough," replied the caretaker. "Go in and drag him out."
The men advanced and Topper automatically retreated.
"And when you get him," continued the caretaker, "give him a few for me."
This sent Topper shivering to the wall. It was at this stage in the proceedings that the command "Sic 'em, Oscar!" rang through the room. Immediately a low growl was heard and Oscar's hind quarters became involved with the legs of the bewildered attackers. Thus began the Battle of the Lake, one of the few decisive engagements on record and one which Mr. Topper did not linger to witness.
Out of the din and confusion that filled the room Topper heard Marion's voice shouting, "Break for the car, old thing. We'll bring the luggage along."
Topper did not wait for further bidding. Stepping on the face of a prostrate man, he fought his way to the door.
"Don't forget my trousers," he called back. "They're on the chair in my room."
"Hell, no," grunted the Colonel. "Run for it, man."
Topper dodged past the crippled caretaker with the agility of a fawn and darted down the steps. As he raced along the lake path cries of anguish followed his flying feet.
"I don't hold with this at all," he thought to himself as he sped over the roots. "Is my life to be one mad pursuit, all summer long?"
As he rounded the bend two suit-cases flashed past him at a dizzy speed and these in turn were followed by a carefully poised bottle and a bundle of Marion's clothing.
"Speed, O lout," a voice panted, and Topper redoubled his efforts.
The rear was brought up by Topper's trousers, snapping in the wind and Oscar following after, his rump low to the ground and his claws kicking up dust.
Few persons have ever lived to witness such a remarkable sight—Topper and half a dog chasing a pair of runaway trousers, not to mention a flying bottle and a couple of bounding suit-cases. Even at the moment Topper was impressed by the novelty of the situation.
Like a rallying standard in a headlong retreat, Topper's trousers danced in the morning breeze. And Topper followed his trousers with his last spark of energy. Far behind him he heard shouting voices, but he kept his eyes to the front and a trifle raised. He could not bring himself to look at the contortions of Oscar. The impatient honking of a horn urged him onward, and with a final burst of speed he reached the car and flung himself into the front seat. Oscar was sitting beside him, his invisible section panting audibly. The automobile was already in motion, hurtling down a branch road that led through the valley. Mr. Topper collected himself and moved a little away from Oscar, whose hind leg was busily engaged in dislodging an unseen flea.
"Well, Topper," came Marion Kerby's calm voice, "we got you out of that fix."
"You got me into it, too," replied Topper. "Why didn't you tell me they were all spooks?"
"Didn't know it myself," she answered, as the car lurched round a bend.
"I suspected something all the time," said the Colonel, "but I wasn't sure of Topper."
"Yes," put in Mrs. Hart. "What's the matter with him? Isn't he a low-plane?"
"No," replied Marion. "He's solid through and through."
"How very, very interesting," continued Mrs. Hart, poking an inquiring finger into Topper's shoulder.
"Make her stop," said Topper to Marion.
"Stop tickling my boy friend," she called back. "He's so bashful."
"Here, Topper," said the Colonel, passing the bottle forward, "take a drink, my buck. You need it."
Like a greedy baby Topper closed his fingers round the bottle and brought it to his lips. It was difficult drinking, what with the speed of the car and the condition of the road, but Topper refused to remove the bottle until he was convinced that he felt better.
"Don't forget the driver," said Marion Kerby.
"And don't forget that we are still your guests," Mrs. Hart suggested sweetly.
"That's the last bottle," said the Colonel. "We'll have to do something about it."
"Well, you go ahead and do it," replied Topper. "I've done enough for one day."
"Trust me," agreed the Colonel. "I never fail. Stop at the next town and I'll visit a few of the best houses, guided by my unerring instinct."
"In the meantime, do you want your dog?" Topper asked. "I'm afraid he's crowded up here."
"Not at all," the Colonel answered. "Don't worry about Oscar. He loves the front seat."
Topper closed his eyes and let the rushing wind cool his face.
"There are three of them now," he thought, as he clung to the side of the car. "Three spirits and half a dog. I'm as good as done for already."
"Colonel," he called, continuing aloud, "give me another drink. I'll have to keep myself numb until I've got used to the situation."
"Eat, drink and be merry! " cried the Colonel, "for to-morrow . . ."
"Don't finish it," interrupted Mr. Topper, hastily reaching for the Scotch. "I am intimate enough with death as it is."
"I won't," agreed the Colonel, "if you don't finish that Scotch."
Topper did his best.
|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|