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The Jovial Ghosts
The Misadventures of Topper
The Colonel Orders Dinner
IN the cool of the evening four flushed faces peered from Mr. Topper's automobile at a rain-washed sign bearing the legend: "The Sleeping Fox." After a whispered conversation within the machine, the four flushed faces once more emerged. Topper now was completely clad and his companions had neatly materialised. To all outward appearances they gave the impression of being four quite normal persons bent on an evening's pleasure.
"With our thirst and Topper's money we should do very nicely here," remarked the Colonel, casting an anticipatory eye at the road-house.
"Don't frighten him before we get him inside," Mrs. Hart said warningly. "This looks to me like a lovely layout."
"Fear is my constant companion," replied Topper. "Don't consider me."
He was standing in need of a little judicious propping and the women were furtively assisting him. They were endeavouring to give the appearance of two ladies being escorted to dinner by a prosperous and dignified gentleman. In carrying out the deception Topper was of little value. With the most casual regard for dignity he ambled up the path.
"You women are so good to me," he murmured, and, as if overcome by his effort, sank heavily back in the supporting arms.
"For the love of Pete, stand up," Marion tragically whispered. "Remember, everything depends on you."
"I know it does," he gloated. "I know damn well it does. And you remember this, from now on I rule. No more foot-racing, no more queer dogs, no more disorderly parties. Remember all those things."
"Of course we will," the Colonel hastened to reply in a mollifying voice. "Didn't we throw Oscar away half a mile down the road?"
"Half a mile is a short distance to throw that dog," observed Mr. Topper.
"I know," continued the Colonel, "but it showed that our spirits were in the right place."
"Don't mention spirits to me," Topper retorted. "The very word is revolting. And furthermore, you're not in the right place. If you were you'd be far, far away."
"Ah, Topper, how cruel you are to us all," Mrs. Hart protested. "I'm sure you don't mean that."
He looked scornfully at the women, then plunged free from their grasp.
"Stand back, the pair of you," he commanded, "and I'll show you how a gentleman takes his ease at an inn. I am weary of your arms."
He squared his shoulders belligerently and with heavy dignity began to mount the steps. As if he were performing an acrobatic sensation his companions clustered watchfully around him, ready to spring to action at the slightest show of weakness. An immaculately clad individual appearing in the door of the road-house, stopped with surprise on seeing Mr. Topper, then hastened forward with a smile of welcome.
"Why, Mr. Topper," he said. "This is an unexpected pleasure. How are things at the club?"
At the mention of the word club, Mr. Topper swayed perceptibly on his feet.
"Club," he repeated thoughtfully. "Club. Why is it I don't like that word? Ah, yes, I remember, Williams. I have just recently escaped from the most terrifying of clubs."
"And Mrs. Topper?" asked Williams, tactfully changing the subject.
"And Mrs. Topper, too," replied Topper. "I've just escaped from her."
As if cheered by this reflection, he turned his back on the astonished Williams and beckoned to his companions, who were hovering like hopeful orphans at the head of the steps.
"It's all right," he assured them. "Williams is an old friend. Knew him when I was a respectable member of the country club. He was our steward then. First-class steward."
More for support than friendship he turned to Williams and extended his hand.
"Don't mind my friends," he continued. "They're thoroughly low. And remember this, Williams: silence is crisp and green. Here's a little silence now."
Williams, who had hitherto considered Topper as being rather a painfully proper man, was both surprised and delighted at this lighter side of his character. He deftly pocketed the money and with a murmured expression of gratitude ushered the party to a table where he spoke impressively to the waiter.
"Hear what he said," gloated Topper. "He told the waiter to bring us anything we wanted. That's because I'm here."
"Then tell him to bring us some cocktails and we'll be even more impressed," Marion remarked. "I'll raise it one," put in Mrs. Hart.
"And I'll double it," said the Colonel promptly.
"Bring them double cocktails," Mr. Topper explained to the waiter. "And bring me one, too."
"Any particular brand, sir?"
"Dry Martinis are more business-like," the Colonel suggested. "It would be wiser to stick to them."
When the waiter had departed the Colonel set himself the task of planning the dinner, and in this he displayed such a lack of self-control that finally Mr. Topper felt called upon to interrupt.
"Don't look upon this as a barbecue, Colonel," he remarked. "Regard it rather in the light of a quiet little dinner. Don't stint yourself, but at the same time don't stuff. Perhaps you once saw service in a famine district. There is no danger here."
Marion Kerby turned on Topper with venomously flashing eyes.
"Are you trying to humiliate me in front of my friends?" she demanded.
"Not at all," replied Mr. Topper. "I was merely trying to introduce a little reason into this sordid discussion of food. It's not humanly possible to consume at one sitting all of the things he's planning to order."
"You forget that we're not human," Marion replied briefly. Then, turning to the Colonel, she continued with a sweet smile, "Go ahead, Colonel. Order the whole damned card. Don't mind him."
"Let's see," said the Colonel blandly, as if the interruption had never occurred. "Where were we now? Oh, yes, here we are. We'd got down to the fowl."
"The fowl," breathed Mrs. Hart, clasping her hands in delight. "I'm a perfect demon with a duck."
"Well," remarked Mr. Topper, with weary resignation, "you're the most material-minded spirits that ever returned to earth to drive a mortal mad."
"Why, the more irregularly I live the more regular I feel," said Mrs. Hart, taking Topper's hand. "Aren't you that way?"
"I am not," he answered shortly, withdrawing his hand from the table.
"The cocktails are among us," Marion announced as the waiter arranged the glasses. "Cheer up, everybody. I propose a toast to Topper, our reluctant and respectable host."
She rose from the table and raised her glass.
"Here's to Topper," she said. "A good sport in spite of himself. I know him by the back."
"That's about the only way anybody knows me now," observed Topper. "I'm always running."
"You poor old dear," she said, and, bending over, quickly kissed him. Topper grew red in the face and looked guiltily about him.
"The last shred is gone," he remarked. "Nothing remains but blackmail—blackmail, divorce and disgrace."
He tossed off his cocktail at a gulp and gazed solemnly at his companions.
"From now on," he announced, "I cast decency to the winds. Let's strip ourselves naked and run around screaming."
"Hear! Hear!" cried the Colonel. "That was spoken like a man. Waiter, another flock."
And another flock was brought. Nor was it the last flock. Nor even the next to the last. Great execution was done that night at the inn, prodigious eating and lavish drinking, the Colonel leading the way by example and encouragement. Topper danced with Marion until his collar became a rag and his feet two nests of blisters. When finally, through a combination of complications, he was forced to retain his seat at the table, he lived happily in the memory of his dizzy flights through space. Marion Kerby sat close to him, whispering surprisingly pleasant words in his ear, and Topper, being in too expansive a mood to be suspicious, sweated in his seventh heaven.
This state of things was suddenly demolished by an unexpected arrival. The Colonel and Mrs. Hart were engaged in a highly enterprising type of dance when the unexpected arrival occurred. And the unexpected arrival was none less than Oscar, or at least that portion of Oscar which he had chosen to show to the world. Topper was the first to see that portion, and at its appearance his happiness vanished. Oscar dragged himself wearily through the door of the inn, displayed an undecided rump to the assembled guests, then set off patiently to follow his master's exuberant heels.
Unaware of this singular attachment, the Colonel continued to dance with the blissful Mrs. Hart. And even the other dancers appeared to take no notice. It was at that stage of the evening when one would rather not see such things. Without a shadow of a doubt there were many diners and dancers who really did see Oscar in his unfinished condition, but those who did see him refused to report the fact, fearing that it might be a serious reflection on their own sobriety. So Oscar followed the Colonel until the Colonel passed Topper's chair. Here his gyrations were interrupted by Topper's hand on his sleeve.
"Oscar's back," whispered Topper. "For God's sake do something about it. I knew you hadn't thrown him far enough away."
"But, my dear man," the Colonel expostulated, "there's a limit to my strength. I can't chuck him back into the fourth dimension the way he insists on going about."
"Then sit down," said Topper, "and get him under the table. Some of these people might throw a fit. I'm sober myself already."
"If they don't like my dog," fumed the Colonel, "they can throw as many fits as they want."
"It's not that they don't like your dog," explained Topper, "it's merely that they don't understand your dog. Oscar to them is not quite clear. Please get him out of sight."
"I'll agree with you there," replied the Colonel, seating himself at the table. "Oscar is no ordinary brand of dog. There's more to him than greets the eye."
Oscar crawled under the table and Mr. Topper drew in his feet.
"That's just what I'm worrying about," he remarked. "Does the invisible part of him bite? If it does it is sure to bite me."
"Have no fear about Oscar," said the Colonel. "He never harbours a grudge. He was kicked around too much in life for that."
"I'm sorry," declared Mr. Topper, sincerely. "Perhaps he's hungry now. I'll give him this bone to gnaw on."
He held a bone under the table and it was instantly snapped from his hand.
"He is hungry," Topper continued, quickly, withdrawing his hand. "Very hungry. Listen to that."
The bone was rattling on the floor and from beneath the table came the busy sound of crunching. The waiter, who had just arrived with coffee and ices, on hearing this small commotion, raised the tablecloth and peered down at the massed feet, in the centre of which lay Oscar engaged in appeasing his hunger. The waiter dropped the tablecloth and leaned down to Mr. Topper.
"Don't tell the ladies," he whispered, "but the funniest thing is going on under your table. Half of a dog is messingaround with the leg of a duck, so help me God."
Topper glanced under the table, then looked stonily at the waiter.
"You might be right," he said, "but I don't see it. One of the ladies has dropped her fur piece and I myself dropped that duck leg. Bring the bill and say nothing more about it. No one will know you've been drinking."
"Sorry," apologised the waiter. "I hadn't realised it myself, but the Colonel kept on insisting."
"Then don't abuse his liberality," advised Topper. "Hurry with the bill."
"Yes," put in Marion Kerby, "hurry with the bill. This place begins to irk me. I'm dying to take a stroll."
The waiter hastened away and Topper leaned over to Marion.
"Collect that dog," he told her, "and keep him under your cape until we get out of here."
"Only for you," she replied, "would I do such a thing."
She reached down and after a little scuffling succeeded in gathering up Oscar. For a moment his tail waved frantically above the edge of the table, then flashed from view beneath Marion's cape, which from time to time thereafter became suddenly convulsed with life. The waiter arrived with the bill and in his preoccupation handed it to the Colonel, who, upon scanning the total, promptly disappeared. It was like the flashing out of a light.
"There isn't that much money in the world," floated through the air.
Only the bill remained, still poised above the table. It was trembling slightly as if the invisible holder were shaken by an attack of nerves.
"The shock was too much for him," whispered Mrs. Hart. "I've seen it happen before."
"He's gone," said the waiter, looking inquiringly at Mr. Topper. "He's not here any more."
"Of course not," laughed Mr. Topper. "He never was. Pass that bill to me."
Before the waiter could reach it the billmoved across the table to Mr. Topper's out-stretched hand.
"You're welcome to it," a voice murmured.
The waiter moved away from the Colonel's empty chair and stood close to Mr. Topper.
"Mr. Topper," he pleaded, "please don't say he wasn't here. I could never bear that. Why his cup is still half full of coffee and there's his smouldering cigarette."
In the face of this undeniable evidence of the Colonel's recent presence, Mr. Topper was forced to alter his bantering tactics. He opened his wallet and selected several colourful bills.
"Take this money away," he said, "and stop asking questions. Let us admit that the Colonel was here. What of it I As you accurately pointed out, he isn't here any more. He slipped away somewhere, as all of us must do at times. If I were in your place I wouldn't press the investigation any further."
"I certainly wouldn't," remarked Mrs. Hart. "It has gone far enough."
"I'm sorry," replied the waiter, "and I'm very much obliged. As you say, Mr. Topper, he must have just slipped away in a hurry like."
Marion Kerby burst out laughing and patted the waiter on his back.
"That's it," she said. "That's exactly it. He slipped away in a hurry like, or, to put it differently, with all possible speed."
The waiter smiled nervously and bowed, then emulated the Colonel's example to the best of his ability. Mr. Topper, despite his eagerness, was forced to be more leisurely in his retreat. With earnest but wavering dignity, he followed the women from the room. Oscar lent distinction to their departure. Every time he kicked his legs Marion Kerby suddenly bulged out in the back in a most grotesque manner, an occurrence which caused Mrs. Hart to burst forth into hysterical laughter to the greater humiliation of Mr. Topper. Once safely outside in the darkness he mopped his face and gave vent to his feelings.
"After eating and drinking his fill," he complained, "he plays us a trick like that. And he calls himself a soldier."
"A Colonel, no less," said Marion Kerby, "and he allows me to protect this unlettered hound."
She dropped Oscar to the road and readjusted her cape.
"He couldn't help it," Mrs. Hart defended. "The bill was too much for him. I'm sure he didn't mean to do it. At the size of the figures he lost control, and anyway, think how much he drank."
"I never saw a man do better," admitted Marion, "and for that reason I forgive him. We all play tricks in our cups."
Without paying attention to their direction they wandered down the wooded road until they came to an open field, a meadow slanting off in the darkness. In the distance, above the trees, an old battered moon was sailing low in the sky.
The night was quiet and peaceful round them, filled with secret rustlings and a thousand fragrant smells. The Sleeping Fox seemed miles away, its brilliance vanished and its orchestra stilled. Without knowing it they were soothed and subdued by the quiet beauty of their surroundings. And out of the quiet beauty of their surroundings a singing voice, deep and undaunted, came storming towards them down the road.
"It's the Colonel," exclaimed Mrs. Hart. "He has a splendid voice. Listen!"
Marion and Topper listened without enthusiasm to the following chanty:
"A splendid voice," remarked Mr. Topper, sarcastically interrupting the booming flow of the old sea song. "Caruso must be fairly spinning in his grave."
"What's this about Caruso?" asked the Colonel, looming large in the darkness. "Why, I taught him his do, re, mi's."
"So you are once more with us," said Marion Kerby. "What was your hurry to go?"
"Couldn't help it," explained the Colonel. "The size of the bill destroyed my resistance. There were no such figures in my days. But I've brought along gifts as a show of atonement."
He slipped his hands into his pockets and produced two large bottles.
"In view of the size of the bill," he continued, "I took the liberty to remove these from the pantry. I have still another."
The gifts of atonement proved more than acceptable and the Colonel was reinstated with full honours and privileges. With a bottle circulating freely between them they wandered off into the meadow until wandering no longer suited their mood. Mr. Topper insisted on demonstrating the fact that he was rapidly becoming a spirit himself. With the utmost conviction he would throw himself into the air, but being a little heavier than that element he invariably returned with great speed to the earth, from which his companions would lift him and once more set him in motion. It was a night of magnificent distances and headlong enterprise. They sang and danced and made patriotic speeches and pursued each other across the meadows to the intense delight of the gambolling flanks of Oscar. To Topper, it was like a dream, one in which he was liberated and given tremendous strength. His steps seemed as light as feathers and as long as leagues. The field was filled with dancing forms that swirled in wild abandon until they left the earth and went circling round the moon. And through the darkness he heard shouting voices as the party searched for one another. The Scotch with which the Colonel plied them became transmuted in their brains into the glory of the night. Nature became intensely beautiful and their bodies madly alive. It was such a night as comes seldom to a man and which fortunately for his peace of mind is seldom remembered after it has gone. Topper remembered but little when he awoke the following morning on the bank of a slow-moving river. Oscar's bushy tail was draped across his chest, and that was all that remained of Oscar. He had lost ground during the exhausting activities of the night. Topper slid cautiously from under the tail and looked down into the clear water of the river. His body was feverish and his head an aching weight which he balanced with the greatest difficulty. Several yards away Marion Kerby was sleeping sweetly in Mrs. Hart's lap. The Colonel, deep in slumber, was sitting erect as if he had forgotten to lie down. Topper turned his eyes away from his companions and looked longingly at the river. His body craved to feel the soothing flow of its cool waters. Unable to stand the temptation any longer he crept away into a clump of bushes and divested himself of his outer garments. With a last timid look at his sleeping friends he slid down the bank and insinuated himself into the water, his hot blood leaping with gratitude as the river closed around him. But Topper was not alone. A flaunting tail had followed him to his tryst. Round and round it circled, splitting the water neatly like the periscope of a submarine. Topper was hardly pleased with the presence of Oscar, but he was enjoying the river too thoroughly to leave it undisturbed to the dog. His enjoyment was interrupted by a greeting from the bank.
"Good morning," the Colonel called to him. "Will you join me in a drink?"
"That's all I ever seem to be doing," replied Topper, swimming over to the Colonel. "But just for once I will. After this I'm going to swear off for a while."
The Colonel passed down the bottle and Topper refreshed himself.
"My dog seems to have grown less," observed the Colonel, watching the sportive tail. "I'll have to do some hard work on him to-day."
"If you make him disappear altogether you'd be doing me a favour," said Mr. Topper, holding up the bottle.
"The creative spirit is too strong in me for that," replied the Colonel. "I must make him a whole dog or bust."
His head was withdrawn from the bank and in a few minutes he reappeared accompanied by Mrs. Hart and Marion Kerby, very sketchily attired in improvised bathing suits. With little screams of delight they plunged into the river and swam friskily round the dismayed Topper, who, submerged up to his chin, was modestly treading water.
"An auspicious beginning to a new day," cried the Colonel. "This will set us all up splendidly."
"This and a good breakfast," added Mrs. Hart.
"What a night it was, Cosmo," said Marion, swimming up to him and resting her hand on his shoulder. "Did you ever have so much fun?"
"It was fun," admitted Topper, "but whether I should have enjoyed it or not I am too vague to remember. What did we do with the automobile?"
"It's still at the road-house. We'll get it presently and move along."
"I don't move along an inch," replied Topper, "until all of you have cleared out of here."
"I'll get them out," said Marion. Then, turning to the others, she said: " The last one out forfeits a drink. Only three are left in the bottle."
This announcement was immediately followed by an undignified scramble up the bank of the river, the Colonel doing his best to block Mrs. Hart's progress. With great good humour Mr. Topper watched the three pairs of legs speeding over the grass. Marion Kerby was leading the way, running like a frightened deer, her flimsy draperies streaming in the wind. After a final turn in the water, Topper emerged from the river, and, casting a cautious glance about him, sought concealment in the bushes, his eyes still filled with the grace and beauty of Marion Kerby's flying form.
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