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The Jovial Ghosts
The Misadventures of Topper
Mr. Topper Does Not Celebrate
IN this convivial manner began one of the most active and interesting periods of Mr. Topper's incredible vacation. He had originally decided that he needed a change. Now his needs were more than satisfied. No man's life could have undergone more radical alterations. The Colonel and Mrs. Hart garnished his trip with their misconduct, lending to an automobile tour the atmosphere of a raiding party.
For three weeks the four of them cruised perilously about the countryside, upsetting the entire New England States and leaving ruined and shattered nerves in the wake of the hard-pressed automobile. At night they slept wherever they chanced to find themselves, and frequently they found themselves in strange and unaccountable places. To-night it might be a road-house, on the following one a field. And there were moments so fraught with danger that they retreated to the woods until the hue and cry had subsided.
Despite the many discomforts of this open-air existence, Mr. Topper accepted his lot for reasons of economy, Mrs. Hart and the Colonel being rather fastidious in their tastes. Whenever the party put up at an inn they loudly demanded the best of accommodations, for which they graciously allowed Mr. Topper to pay. That neither of them had been asked to become permanently attached to Mr. Topper never seemed to occur to them. They were childlike in their faith that they were wanted. Topper occasionally wondered about this, reflecting that his invitation to the Colonel to share his Scotch had turned out to be one of the most costly acts of hospitality he had ever performed.
Nevertheless, Mr. Topper appeared to have profited by his outing. His body had grown lean and alert, ready to run at a moment's notice, and his skin had been tanned by constant exposure to the elements. His character had also toughened considerably and his drinking capacity enlarged. True, he was hardly what one would call a desperate and reckless man, yet he had learned to accept danger with fortitude and delinquency with tolerance. Nor did his reputation weigh too heavily on his mind. By day he flaunted it in the face of the world and at night it dangled in jeopardy. And strangely enough Mr. Topper, in spite of his disorderly life, or rather, because of it, had become a better member of society; more self-reliant, more capable and far more interesting. He discovered in his heart the first faint whispering of pure Christianity, and in some way he continued to keep his virtue intact by keeping his vices active.
After the swimming party in the river he had eschewed strong liquor, and Marion Kerby had followed his example. Of course there had been a few slight lapses, but these had been such trifling affairs that they no longer counted with Topper. The Colonel and Mrs. Hart, however, were implacable in their thirst, to the quenching of which they devoted most of their energy and thought. For several days at a time they would absent themselves from the company of Mr. Topper and Marion to revel in more congenial surroundings. From these little side trips they invariably returned in a state of moral collapse; Oscar, more or less visible, close on his master's heels.
During the absence of this unedifying couple, Topper and Marion dwelt together in comparatively quiet and peaceful companionship. On one of her flights from his side she had acquired, without cost, a copy of the "Odyssey," and this brave tale they read together throughout the long, still, summer days.
For the first time in his life Topper came to realise that loose living and large thinking could get along quite comfortably together, that they were in fact boon companions. Under the influence of Marion Kerby he developed along altogether new and improved lines. But whenever the Colonel and Mrs. Hart returned from their excursions, Marion reverted to her former ways and joined them in a conspiracy to destroy Mr. Topper's tranquillity.
On this particular occasion there were good reasons for rejoicing. Oscar at last, after a tremendous burst of concentration, had succeeded in materialising up to the ears. This was the farthest north the dog had ever achieved, and as a consequence the Colonel was bubbling over with gratification and pride.
"Just mark my words," he went about saying, "I'll make a whole dog of him yet."
Oscar, rather dizzy at his unexpected success, swaggered aggressively in his gait and danced incompletely around. Up to this time he had shown but little interest in his personal appearance, being satisfied to remain at whatever length of dog he happened to find himself. On some days he was only an animated tail, on others a leaping rump, and on several occasions he appeared simply as a leg and let it go at that. Mr. Topper had never grown thoroughly accustomed to Oscar because of his continually changing appearance, but the man's natural love of animals gradually overcame his first decided objections. Today he shared in the joy of the others and complimented Oscar on his brilliant showing, saying that he hoped some day to see his face.
"If ever there was an occasion that justified a celebration that occasion is now at hand," declared the Colonel with conviction. "I know of a first-rate hotel near by and I strongly suggest that we put up there for the night."
"You're a particularly ingenious person in finding occasion to justify a celebration," replied Mr. Topper, "but on this one, Colonel, I'm with you. I'd do anything in my power to encourage that dog of yours to go one way or the other, preferably the other. Let us descend on this hotel."
"Never have I seen such an improvement in a man in all my life," exclaimed Mrs. Hart in rapture. "Marion, you've done him a world of good."
Topper cast her a critical glance. "You look terrible," he remarked. "You should cut it out for a while."
"But our visit is nearly over," she replied with a little sigh. "Let's all raise hell while our ectoplasm lasts. You don't have to worry, Topper."
"What a tough baby she is," Mr. Topper mused to himself. Then he added aloud, "Is your husband still alive?"
"Yes, thank God," she replied with fervour, "and I wish him good health and a long life."
"Amen," said the Colonel piously.
"Beautiful characters," remarked Mr. Topper. "What about this celebration?"
To deprive the hotel of its legitimate profit it was decided that Mr. Topper should engage a large room and that the others should, as the Colonel tactfully phrased it, "join him there."
"The idea is good," agreed Mr. Topper, "but for one consideration. What about Oscar?"
"We can cram him into the trunk on the back and cut an air hole in it," replied the Colonel, proceeding to act on his words.
"If Oscar can stand it I can," remarked Mr. Topper. "What's to prevent him from de-materialising and joining us at some ill-chosen moment?"
"I hardly think he'll do that," said the Colonel. "He's so pleased with himself as he is that he wouldn't lose an inch for the world."
"Let us devoutly hope so," said Mr. Topper, as he watched the Colonel and Mrs. Hart unceremoniously cram Oscar into the trunk.
The hotel lay far back on a deep green, floor-like lawn which supported the weight of many trees, large trees whose generous limbs showered the benediction of shade upon the opulent persons who sat beneath them discussing golf, bridge and gin and appraising the new arrivals. The hotel itself was a rangy structure, having been added to in various styles of architecture as its popularity spread abroad. However, through sheer massiveness, it succeeded in presenting a harmonious whole, being sufficiently antique and modern to appeal to the comfortably artistic.
Around dinner time the front of the hotel afforded a striking study in modesty. Some of the ladies dressed directly in front of their windows, some dressed a trifle removed, but no lady, it seemed, ever dressed entirely out of sight. It was around dinner time when Mr. Topper arrived, and so naturally he had no eyes for the blue sea that swept away to the horizon nor for the tent-like sails that slanted against the sky. As he followed the bell boy down a dark corridor along which trunks were parked like so many automobiles, a tinkling sound of an unmistakable nature issued from every door. Patriotic Americans were paying their evening tribute to the sacred laws of the land.
"If it were not so confoundedly hot," thought Topper, "I'd think I was on a sleigh ride. That tinkling makes me thirsty."
With the foresight bred of experience, he halted the bell boy at the door and took the key from his hand.
"I can do very nicely now myself," he told the boy, giving him a generous tip. "Don't bother to come in."
It was well that he took this precaution, for, when he entered the room, he found his companions in varying stages of incompleteness. The Colonel was practically present, but Mrs. Hart and Marion Kerby were still sufficiently vague to have given the bell boy a decided shock.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting," he remarked, dropping the bags to the floor. "This is a decidedly musical hotel, isn't it, Colonel?"
"It is," replied the Colonel. "And our room alone is silent. What do you say to my taking steps?"
"Under ordinary circumstances I'd say no," said Mr. Topper, "but as this is a celebration, and incidentally a hot evening, I quite agree with you. Steps should be taken; but step, Colonel, with the utmost caution. Don't, for God's sake, stumble."
"Leave everything to me," replied the Colonel, as he swiftly faded from view.
"I don't have to," remarked Topper. "You'd take it yourself anyway."
In a few minutes a gleaming cocktail shaker was seen to float through the open window. Without taking the time to reappear, the Colonel poured out a small drink and tasted it.
"Terrible," the voice remarked. "I'll take it back and throw it in his face."
The shaker floated away, and after a short wait another one, accompanied by a bottle of gin, appeared at the window and, drifting across the room to the table, settled there with a silvery tinkle. The Colonel emerged from obscurity and sampled his plunder.
"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "Excellent! Now we can all have a drink."
From down the hall came the babble of excited voices mingled with the sound of running feet and slamming doors.
"Somebody seems to be upset," remarked Marion Kerby.
"It sounds so," said Mr. Topper. "How did your victims behave, Colonel?"
"Very nicely," replied the Colonel. "As is usual in such cases, they were too confused to realise what had happened until after it had happened. The man was standing with the shaker held aloft, poised for the downward shake. I snatched it from his hand, seized the bottle of gin and fled, casting back a fleeting glance at the petrified company. The man was still holding his hand in the air like Ajax defying the lightning or Liberty bereft of her torch. One woman, I believe, had fainted. That was about all."
He knocked the shaker against the table and made a slight dent in it.
"In case of a search being instigated," he explained, "we can identify our property by this mark. All gin looks alike, but to make assurance doubly sure we had better drink this up as speedily as possible."
"Justifiable inebriety," Mr. Topper suggested.
"Exactly," agreed the Colonel. "Telephone for some glasses, ice and a few oranges."
When Mr. Topper went down to dinner half an hour later he was in a state of high good humour. Marion, the Colonel and Mrs. Hart had elected to remain behind, the Colonel judiciously pointing out that the dinner hour was the ideal time for looting, so many guests being absent from their rooms. Moreover, there was still some gin left to be turned into cocktails. Mr. Topper, relieved to escape from his boisterous companions, was delighted with this arrangement.
"Don't hurry back," said Marion as he was about to leave. "We can manage everything. Stroll about and amuse yourself."
With a grateful look Mr. Topper innocently departed and made his way to the dining-room. Here he was seated at an enviable table occupied at the moment by a handsomely gowned woman. She was plump and pretty and appeared to have been in this life long enough to have learned how to enjoy it without too many qualms. Mr. Topper bowed and the woman smiled, and before the end of the dinner he had gleaned the information that the woman's name was Mrs. Brewster and that her husband had died some years ago of Bright's disease as she had repeatedly warned him he would. On leaving the table she favoured him with a particularly promising smile, and intimated that there were many beautiful walks about the place if one cared for that sort of thing. That sort of thing, Mr. Topper said flatly, was exactly what he cared for most. She smiled again and undulated away, Mr. Topper following her departure with glowing eyes.
When he had finished his dinner he repaired to the general assembly room of the hotel and mingled complacently with the guests. A tall, perspiring gentleman was raffling lace garments for the benefit of some worthy cause, and round this gentleman the ladies were milling, their ears eagerly attuned to catch the numbers he called out as he drew small bits of paper from a hat.
As Mr. Topper was standing there enjoying this little flurry of excitement, the woman directly in front of him gave a most undignified start and rubbed herself tenderly. Then she turned and glared at Mr. Topper, whispering a few words to the woman next to her as she did so.
"Why, what a thing to do!" exclaimed the woman, looking indignantly at Mr. Topper.
This was too much for Topper. He shrank guiltily away to the other side of the circle, where he stood wondering what it was all about. But here the same thing happened, only more publicly. A woman, brushing past Mr. Topper, suddenly stopped and, uttering a little cry of pain, looked at him with a shocked expression.
"Sir," she said, "if you do that again I'll have you ordered from this hotel."
"But what have I done?" asked the bewildered Topper.
"You know very well," she replied significantly. "If you were a gentleman you wouldn't even ask."
Before the disapproving glances of a number of guests, Mr. Topper abandoned all hope of clearing himself and fled to the smoking-room. Here he sat down on a sofa beside an elderly gentleman who was snoring with childlike candour, his half-smoked cigar still held in his hand. Topper produced his handkerchief and mopped his flushed face. When he looked up the eyes of the elderly gentleman were fixed reproachfully on him.
"Why did you do that?" he demanded. 'You were snoring," replied Mr. Topper for lack of a better answer.
"That was no way to stop me," said the gentle-man. "Don't do it again or I'll call for help."
Topper, at his wit's end, thereupon decided that his room was the only safe place for him. Taking the precaution to stay as far away as possible from anyone, he made for the stairs, but here his retreat was cut off by the charming Mrs. Brewster. He was on the point of hurrying past her when she gave a sudden little cry of surprise and looked coyly at him.
"Why, you naughty man," she said. "I don't know why I'm not angry. Just for that you must take a walk with me."
Mr. Topper, too alarmed to inquire what "just for that" signified to Mrs. Brewster, obediently followed her from the hotel. She led him to a gathering of boulders overhanging the beach and gracefully arranged herself thereon, using Mr. Topper's hand for support and forgetting to give it back to him.
Mr. Topper's mind was in a state of siege, unhappy thoughts attacking it from all sides, as he vainly strove to figure out what curse had over-taken him. He was convinced that Marion Kerby was in some way involved in his predicament, that she was, in fact, directly responsible for it. Mrs. Brewster's cooing, voice interrupted his moody reflections.
"I was such a lonesome girl until you came," she said. "There's not a single man in all this hotel that's half alive."
"But I'm not a single man," Mr. Topper replied cautiously.
"Oh, I don't mean that," she laughed. "And anyway, I hate single men. They always propose marriage."
Not feeling quite sure as to what proposals were expected of him, Mr. Topper made some pleasant reference to the character of the night.
"It's delicious," murmured Mrs. Brewster, moving closer to him and extending one hand to the sea.
Then a strange thing occurred. A white arm suddenly darted from the night, and the hand at the end of it, seizing Mrs. Brewster's, shook it violently up and down. With a cry of terror she fell back into Mr. Topper's arms, and when he had succeeded in propping her up, a headless dog was sitting calmly before them on the rocks. Mr. Topper recognised Oscar immediately, but Mrs. Brewster had never met the dog. Nor did she stay now to be introduced. With little moaning noises she rose unsteadily to her feet and scrambled over the boulders with goat-like agility. The sound of maniacal laughter bursting in the air above her hastened her departure. Mr. Topper turned back to the ocean with thoughts of suicide, only to find that Oscar had vanished and that Marion Kerby was standing in his place.
"So that," she began in a voice of cold fury, "so that is the way you make use of your liberty. Picking a woman up at dinner and taking her out on the rocks. You love walking, don't you? Yes, you do not. I know. I know everything, heard every word you said, saw every look you gave her. Sitting here holding hands and expecting me to go hunting for drink for your fat paunch. Quite a ladies' man, aren't you? Having a grand time and me hanging around like a dope. Well, let me tell you one thing, I'm through. See? I'm through. I quit now, but if I ever catch you with that moth-eaten old troll again I'll scare the living lights out of her. Of all the nerve! Sitting here on the rocks. Disgusting. Don't talk to me, you're too low for words. Come along, Oscar, and I'll shove you back in your trunk. We've intruded too long already."
Oscar appeared from the shadows and followed Marion Kerby's swiftly retreating form. Topper, awaking from his daze, sprang to his feet and cried after Marion.
"Don't go away," he pleaded. "Give me a chance. I can explain everything. Come back, Marion."
"If this damn dog only had a head," she furiously shouted back, "I'd sick him on you. Don't dare to follow me, or I'll make the scene of your life."
Through a side door of the hotel Topper sneaked up to his room only to find it depressingly empty. Squeezed oranges and empty gin bottles bore silent witness to the success of the Colonel's endeavours. Topper walked wearily to the window and looked out over the lawn. Had Marion Kerby permanently left him? That question was uppermost in his mind. He had never before seen her so angry or unreasonable, yet with all his heart he wanted her back. For a long time he walked restlessly up and down his room. Several times he whispered her name, but received no answer. Finally he undressed, switched off the light and, getting into bed, lay there wondering what his vanished companions were doing.
"A lovely celebration," he muttered bitterly to himself, rolling over on his side and seeking forgetfulness in sleep.
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